Hockey is a game of bruises, and the Glacier Nationals endured their fair share last year.
As the newest and youngest team in the Tier III Junior-A Northern Pacific Hockey League (NorPac), the Nationals braved their way through a 42-game season against established opponents across the Pacific Northwest.
Yet Whitefish’s squad still won six games, the most by an expansion team in NorPac’s 10-year history, according to their general manager.
Only 17 games into their second season the Nationals have already matched last year’s win total and are in a genuine chase for the league title. The team is 6-3-1 in the NorPac and in fourth place. West Sound, from Bremerton, Wash., leads the league with a 11-1 record. Eugene is second at 8-4. Tri-Cities is third at 7-7-1.
Glacier has already picked up impressive road victories over the top three teams, beating Eugene, 9-4, Tri-Cities, 10-2, and West Sound, 8-6.
“They’ve gotten better at everything,” head coach Joakim Falt said of the Nationals. “It’s hard to always have a target on your chest as a weak team. But they’re really starting to learn how to win hockey games now.”
West Sound visits the Nationals’ home ice inside Stumptown Ice Den in Whitefish on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1. Game time is 7:35 p.m.
Glacier’s victory against West Sound in the second game of the season proved this was the start of an entirely new chapter for the Nationals. But perhaps the performance most encouraging was last week’s victory in Billings against the Bulls, who play in the competitive American West Hockey League.
Glacier jumped ahead 4-2, but watched the lead evaporate in the third period after Billings sent the game into overtime tied at 4-all. The Nationals sweated through two overtime periods before Sebastian Adnell scored the game-winning goal in a shootout, delivering the program a milestone victory and a boost of confidence.
“The boys battled back, which is huge for them,” Falt said. “We have had bad luck with that. In the past when we got the lead and let it go, we have folded. But Saturday night they learned how to fight back.”
Glacier is playing part of its schedule in the AWHL, which features six teams from Montana, including two powerhouses, the Missoula Maulers and Helena Bighorns. The Nationals will fully join the AWHL next year.
“It’s a good league for us to play in. It’s a war every night,” Falt said. “If you don’t bring 100 percent all the time, you lose. You have these super teams like the Helena Bighorns. We are still a couple years away from giving them a battle. They are really good. But it’s good for us to play them.”
Glacier is 1-6 in AWHL games this season.
Adnell, a 20-year-old from Stockholm, Sweden, was recently named an assistant team captain along with Chris Cutshall, an 18-year-old from Anchorage, Alaska. Cutshall leads the team with 10 goals. Paul Kinder, a 19-year-old from Detroit, is team captain and leads the Nationals in assists with 16.
The full 25-man roster is made up of players ranging in ages from 15 to 20 years old from across the country and even Europe. Junior developmental leagues like the NorPac and AWHL can be a springboard for up-and-comers who have hopes of landing college scholarships or contracts with higher-up amateur teams.
The Nationals have already vaulted one player to the next level. Austin Willenborg spent last season with Glacier before being called up by the Dubuque Fighting Saints in Iowa in the United States Hockey League.
Glacier’s general manager and coach Butch Kowalka is pleased with the program’s development. While some teams across the country are struggling with numbers, Whitefish has proven to be an easy draw for prospective players looking for a chance to grow.
“Obviously we’re doing something right as far as the foundation of our program,” Kowalka said. “It’s just up to us as coaches and recruiters to turn those numbers into quality. It’s great to have 25 guys, but to get 25 guys that are really good, that’s what you’re after.
“We’re upbeat about where things are going.”
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