WHITEFISH – In a small ceremony at the Grouse Mountain Lodge lobby last Thursday, Butch Kowalka sat at a coffee table with Michael Noe, a sheet of paper on the table between them. Noe reached down and signed his name to it.
“Once I sign it, you belong to the Glacier Nationals, as far as hockey,” Kowalka said. Noe nodded, and Kowalka added his signature to the page, adding, “All right. It’s official.”
And with that, the formation of a new Junior A hockey club in the Flathead Valley became one step closer to reality.
While their family and friends clapped, Kowalka grinned and held up the blue jersey that was now Noe’s, emblazoned across the back with the number one. It was fitting in that Noe is the first player to sign on with the new Glacier Nationals, which will take the ice this fall competing in Whitefish and across the region as part of the Northern Pacific (NorPac) Hockey League.
Noe, 20, grew up playing in Whitefish, and a major driver for Kowalka – the president and general manager of the Nationals – in forming the club here was to provide an opportunity for local teens coming up through the existing programs to play Junior A hockey without having to leave the Flathead. As Kowalka continues recruiting young players from as far away as Eastern Europe, he said he hopes Noe will take on a leadership role, helping his teammates adjust to Northwest Montana, on and off the ice.
“Many things are expected of our local guy,” Kowalka said. “We have a lot of faith in him.”
Noe, who graduated from Glacier High and played as a forward for the Butte Roughriders last year, said he liked the idea of, “being a part of the foundation of the program and creating a legacy for the kids.”
“This team can really be an outlet to get kids out of Montana and onto the bigger teams,” Noe continued, adding that he hopes playing for the Nationals allows him to “give back to the community that raised me on hockey.”
Additionally, Kowalka announced he was signing Austin Goldsmith, a defenseman who played for the Southern Oregon Spartans; Kyle Watne, a defender from Post Falls, Idaho; and Trevor Perry, a defender from Ashland, Ore.
On the coaching staff, Kowalka signed Joakim Falt, who has a decade of experience playing Division I hockey in Sweden and nine years coaching in NorPac, as head coach. Kowalka also signed Chadd Olson, an assistant coach at Eastern Washington University last season, as goaltending coach.
As of last week, Kowalka was waiting on a final stamp of approval from USA Hockey officials for his franchise, and sponsors are beginning to line up. Grouse Mountain Lodge purchased the center ice advertising space for the Stumptown Ice Den in a deal expected to generate more than $11,000 for the Whitefish Parks Department.
But while things have been progressing relatively smoothly for the Glacier Nationals, the same cannot be said for most of the Montana teams they originally expected to play. In May, NorPac suspended the teams of Helena, Missoula, Bozeman and Billings. That leaves only the Nationals and Butte Roughriders as NorPac’s Montana franchises. Though a team from Great Falls also applied to become a member of NorPac, as of last week, it was not listed among the teams on NorPac’s website.
Officials with the Missoula Maulers and the Helena Bighorns (last year’s national champions), have disputed the characterization by NorPac that they were suspended, saying that the four teams filed for dormancy with hopes of forming or joining their own league. According to Kowalka, those four teams were under contract not to form their own league until the 2012-2013 season, and to do so would put them in breach, though he hopes they may reconsider.
“We’ve left the door wide open for all these teams to return to NorPac,” Kowalka said.
For the new Nationals, it will mean more time on the road to play teams in Eugene and Medford, Ore., Cody, Wyo., and Seattle, Vancouver, Wash., and Bremerton, Wash. The Nationals will play every team six times, three home games and three away.
“It’ll be a little bit more travel for the team but the way we’re doing the schedule is more games per trip,” Kowalka said.
Over the summer, Kowalka will continue seeking corporate sponsors and recruiting players, ages 16-20, for the team – as well as finding somewhere for them to stay. He is currently seeking families interested in hosting the players. In return, the families receive a $300 monthly stipend and season tickets to the game.
Pending city approval, Stumptown opens Sept. 9. Kowalka plans to begin practice around Sept. 7, and has an idea for conditioning players, before lacing up their skates, to acclimate them to the Flathead: “We’ll be able to run them up the mountain for a day or two.”
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