WHITEFISH – Part of Kohl Bebee’s problem was that his ice skates were two sizes too big. Even more troublesome, though, was the fact he had never skated before.
But don’t underestimate the willpower of a 12-year-old Montana boy in hockey pads. Six years later, Bebee’s willpower is accompanied not only by a sturdy knowledge of skating, but also by a common trait he shares with the rest of his Glacier Avalanche teammates: a deep love of hockey.
“Ever since then, I loved the sport,” Bebee, an 18-year-old senior at Whitefish High School, said of his initial ice outing. “I have a passion for hockey. There’s no better sport for me.”
The Glacier Avalanche high school hockey team, consisting of players throughout the Flathead Valley, began practice in mid-October. The team is part of the Glacier Hockey Association, which offers opportunities for kids ranging from “hot shots” – 5 to 8 years old – to “midgets,” who make up the high school team. They all practice and play at the Stumptown Ice Den.
The majority of this year’s 15 players are from Whitefish, with a few from Kalispell and Eureka as well. Star forward Daniel Markus, who also finished fourth at the Class A golf tournament this year for Whitefish, said his Avalanche teammates relate to each other on a different level than is found on many school sports teams.
“It’s not really the school that brings us together,” Markus said. “It’s the sport.”
Much like other sports that aren’t school sponsored, hockey requires a unique sense of commitment from both parents and kids. For parents, it’s not cheap. Between equipment and travel, without the luxury of school-provided buses, the dollars add up. For kids, it means showing up at 8 p.m. two or three days a week and giving up precious skiing or snowboarding time throughout the winter.
“It’s a huge commitment,” said coach Brad Pancich, who has been involved with hockey for 25 years. “I’m glad to have these parents who are willing to do it.”
Many of Pancich’s players have worked their way through the Glacier Hockey Association system for up to a decade. Some, like Markus, even remember playing before the Stumptown Ice Den was built, when players zipped around on an outdoor rink. Markus, 18, has been part of the association since he was 6 years old. His father, Doug, was a long-time hockey coach who Bebee credits with teaching him the sport. Personal connections are abundant within the team.
“They’ve grown and seen the changes together,” Pancich said. “That’s a huge deal for these kids.
Markus, like Bebee, is well aware of the learning curve for hockey. The sport presents obvious and distinct difficulties for any aspiring player, let alone a 6-year-old kid who has only recently mastered the art of running without tripping. Once the fundamentals of skating have been achieved, a new challenge arises in which the kid must learn to skate while wearing bulky pads and being slammed by opposing players.
“It’s like learning to walk again,” Markus said.
Markus, who plans to play in college, recalls the first time he got hit when he was still shaky on skates.
“It makes you know if you’re made for the sport,” he said.
This is the Avalanche’s first year in the Montana Amateur Hockey Association. In years past, the team has participated in a Canadian league. Canada’s reputation for hockey precedes itself, but Markus said Montana’s teams are no slouches either, especially since many of the squads are from bigger towns. Cities like Bozeman, Missoula and Billings are generally larger than what the Avalanche faced in Canada.
The Avalanche have a balanced team this year, though they are dealing with the loss of star goalie Taylor Thompson, who moved to Salt Lake City to play hockey there. Eighth-grader Taylor Hulslander has stepped in to replace Thompson.
“He’s got some big shoes to fill,” Markus said.
But Hulslander has been proving himself in practice. As a team, the Avalanche feel they can play with any team in the state, with Kohl pointing to Havre as a clear frontrunner. The regular season, which is 20 games long, begins on Nov. 1 and runs through February. The state tournament is in March.
“We’re a good team,” Bebee said. “I’m feeling pretty good about this year.”
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