Junior Hockey: Heimel excited about future for Great Falls Americans
Written by Steve Schreck Tribune Sports Writer
When a league prides itself in a word such as advancement, it is hard to have a hockey team on the ice with a word such as experienced.
The Helena Bighorns have done it. The Great Falls Americans are in the process of trying to do it.
Those are the two teams that were head and shoulders above the rest in the American West Hockey League this season. Helena was probably head and shoulders better than Great Falls. The Bighorns swept the Americans in the league finals.
It was announced in March that the AWHL would merge with the North Americans 3 Hockey League (NA3HL) starting next season. With the addition of seven new teams, the NA3HL, which is managed by the North American Hockey League (Tier II), is now a 28-team league split into five divisions. The AWHL will now be known as the Frontier Division.
“It’s icing on the cake for us as a team and as far as a league to move up to that level,” Jim Keough, the Americans owner, said.
All of it makes up one of the many Tier III junior hockey leagues in the country, leagues that are focused on developing talent and sending them on their way, hopefully to play in college or up to Tier II or Tier I.
Because of this, Americans head coach Jeff Heimel, the 2013-14 AWHL Coach of the Year, can only try to build a roster full of veterans, only to see players leave for greener pastures more often than not, inevitably causing organizations more turnover than retention.
“Winning is fantastic,” Keough said, “but moving kids up is our No. 1 job as an organization.”
The Bighorns had 13 20-year-olds on this year’s team. They have won three AWHL titles in a row. They’ve been to Nationals. They know what it takes.
“I think first and foremost it’s experience,” Heimel said on what stood out this year as being the difference between Helena and his team, adding that, and Keough agreed, there should be a balance of experience and youth and he doesn’t want to ever have 13 20-year-olds on his roster.
The Americans lose five players off this season’s roster for next year because of age restrictions: the league’s Most Valuable Player and team point-leader Aaron McInnis, Brady Christiaens, Austin Nottke, captain and defenseman Donovan Mattfeldt and goaltender Erik Powell. Those are some big holes to fill.
Other players could decide to move on, too, in what is a “fluid process,” said Heimel.
Heimel said “adding the right pieces” and “understanding where we felt short as a staff is definitely on our minds when we are out there recruiting.” Adding a two-way defenseman, he said, and players who can put the puck in the net on next season’s roster will be on his mind. And toughness.
“Maybe trying to add a little physicality,” Heimel said. “A little bit more intensity, a little bit more grit. Because, again, very, very skilled team this year, but even against teams like (the) Billings (Bulls), who were a little more physical, I feel like that’s kind of how they got to us this year, is they were really laying the body on us.”
Heimel said it’s rewarding and humbling to look back and see how far the Great Falls Americans have come, from a one win season in 2011-12 to the league finals this year. But he also wants to move on from the organization’s label of the team that won one game. Now he wants to talk about championships.
“I want to work hard,” Heimel said, “and I want to reap those benefits, too. I want to use our success now to get even better players and get an even more competitive hockey team. Because I think we need to bring a championship to Great Falls. I know it’s something we haven’t done in a long time. I mean, that has to be the goal, we’re right there.”
Keough thanks the sponsors and fans that have stuck with them. But he is quick to single out Heimel, who wasn’t around when Great Falls fired two head coaches during its one-win season. He jumped on board at the start of last season, when the Americans won 16 games. This year they won 39.
Keough says Heimel and the coaching staff have done “an unbelievable job” to get the organization to where it is today.
“I am excited,” Heimel said. “… I’m excited because I feel like this is the first full year recruiting where I am constantly walking up to players and we have results. We have a tradition … I’m just excited, in my opinion, when you can talk to people and tell them that we have an extremely successful team, program and that we have a lot of great pieces in place. I think that’s the most exciting thing to me now.”
Tradition. Success. Excited. Championships.
They are words you would have been hard-pressed to hear a couple years ago.