On a sunny afternoon in Whitefish last week, the temperature hovered around 60 degrees, but inside Stumptown Ice Den it was settling around 40; perfect conditions for hockey.
Winter is still over a month away, but the icy action of hockey season is already underway for the Whitefish Wolverines.
The local junior hockey team is embarking on its second season in the Western States Hockey League, an amateur sports organization in its 21st year with 29 clubs across the U.S.
Whitefish hosted one of the best teams in the league, the Missoula Maulers, for its home opener on Oct. 10. The Wolverines lost 6-2.
This season Wolverines head coach Joakim Falt has a young squad of players from across the U.S. and Canada, and even one from Finland. The team will try to return to the playoffs in March a season after placing fourth in the Northwest Division standings and qualifying as a first-year program.
The club features six returning players, including Riley Ingalls, a 19-year-old from Calgary who had four goals and nine assists in 22 games last year, and Kieffer Helbing, a 20-year-old from Iowa who notched 30 points in 41 games a year ago.
“We’re still trying to come together as a team. It will come as we go, though,” Helbing said. “We’ll definitely get (to the playoffs).”
Whitefish has the benefit of practicing against one of the best junior goalies in the nation, McKenna Hulslander. A junior at Glacier High School, Hulslander is already a standout in Tier I junior hockey league, playing during winter for the St. Louis Blues U16 program. She has spent time training with the Wolverines in recent weeks.
“She’s really good. She will play Division I hockey for sure,” Falt said.
The Wolverines include several 16- and 17-year-old players with lots of potential but little experience when it comes to the fast pace of junior hockey. Falt is focusing on preparing them for that sudden change of pace.
“We’ve got speed and we’ve got skill but we haven’t been able to do that yet. It’s going to take time for them to learn,” Falt said.
“Most of all, they need to learn to win. That’s a tough thing when you get young kids coming up.”
It was a similar story last year but the Wolverines quickly adapted in the competitive Northwest Division of the WSHL, which features perennial contenders Missoula and the Idaho Junior Steelheads.
The Steelheads, based in McCall, Idaho, are one of the most successful teams in the WSHL, having won four of the last five Thorne Cup championships. The team eliminated Whitefish from the playoffs last season en route to another championship. Whitefish held the distinction of being one of only two teams to deal Idaho a loss last year, a 6-1 victory.
This year an eighth team, the Vancouver Rangers, join the Northwest standings alongside the Wolverines, Maulers, Steelheads, Seattle Totems, Southern Oregon Spartans, Butte Cobras and Lake Tahoe Icemen.
Alongside the playoff contention, Whitefish has successfully developed a few players who have moved up the ranks. Chris Cutshall, one of the team’s leaders a year ago, is now playing professional hockey in Sweden. Kristian Evans moved on to Augsburg College in Minneapolis, Minn., where he will play hockey this year. Danny Roe, another former standout and team captain who played in Whitefish the last four seasons on the Wolverines and former Glacier Nationals before that, is playing at Marian University in Wisconsin.
Roe emerged from Whitefish as the ultimate role model for junior hockey.
“Danny is a true warrior. The kid always gives his best, every single night. One thing that really stands out about Danny is that he loves the game,” Falt stated. “I will miss having Danny on my roster after being together for four years, but I wish him all the best.”
Who could be the next Roe? Time will tell. For now, Falt is encouraging his players to focus on the here and now and not get caught up with early struggles.
“This is not a race. This is a seven-month season. A lot of teams push the panic button, but even if you lose 15 games in the beginning, you can still make it up,” Falt said. “You’ve got to look at the whole season and go from there.”
For more information about the Wolverines, visit http://www.whitefishwolverines.pointstreaksites.com.
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