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Big leaps for Big Sky Hockey

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Big Sky's youth hockey program had its biggest winter yet in 2022-23. COURTESY OF MATT DODD

By Jack Reaney STAFF WRITER 

The Big Sky Skating and Hockey Association expanded youth programs for the 2022-23 winter season, as the Montana 64’s traveled farther for more tournaments and grew from three age groups to five. 

Coach Joseph McFadden said the program took some big leaps this season. Big Sky became an affiliate member of the Montana Amateur Hockey Association, which allowed the team to host more games and compete with MAHA opponents. McFadden, who’s been involved for nearly a decade, said he remembers a season with 20 players. This season, the program had roughly 70 players, which allowed the Montana 64’s to separate into 6u, 8u, 10u, 12u and 19u—a better breakdown of cognitive, physical and social development than the beginner, intermediate and advanced levels of prior years.  

The Montana 64’s showcased their 19u program by finishing second in the Montana House League’s Helena tournament, which McFadden compared to the playoff tournament. By 2024-25, McFadden hopes to see the Montana 64’s rise to the Treasure State League—Montana’s top-tier youth hockey—where the 12u age group can compete for a state championship.  

This season, the Montana 64’s competed against clubs from Bozeman, Helena, Great Falls and Lewistown.  

For the first time in 2023, the Montana 64’s 19u team competed in the Helena House Tournament without combining with another team. COURTESY OF JOSEPH MCFADDEN

“It’s a ski town so it’s tough for anything besides skiing to gain any traction, especially with the [snow] year we’ve had,” McFadden said. 

Despite the snow, he said coaches pushed the players to a higher level of commitment with more travel tournaments and roughly four times the amount of home games at the Marty Pavelich Ice Rink in Big Sky.

McFadden said he’s proud “[to watch] the kids grow into good community members. Even if you’re not having the best day, if you’re part of the team you show up and your teammates are there to help you out and bring you back up.” 

Keelan Grupe is a Lone Peak High School junior who plays for the 19u team coached by Nick Cerfino. He was proud of the Montana 64’s runner-up finish in Helena two weeks ago, which wrapped up his second season of hockey.  

Grupe used to play as a kid but quit. On a school trip to Washington D.C., he saw the Washington Capitals host the Philadelphia Flyers, and wondered, ‘why did I stop playing this sport?’ 

He gave credit to McFadden for getting kids into hockey and called him an incredible coach. He also credits Steve Rapp, Scott “STP” Leuzinger and a bunch of volunteers for leading the program. He was also excited by the program’s new gear and new jerseys which came with increased funding this year.  

“I think it’s a great program and I hope that it continues to grow,” Grupe told EBS in a phone call. “People who haven’t played hockey—or haven’t recently—should try to join. Lot of great people, both parents and coaches.” 

McFadden said STP and Steve Rapp have led the program for ages, and they’re starting to step back and let him run with it. Pete Kamman, a former Big Sky resident, is the president of MAHA and helped get Big Sky more organized for league play. McFadden said it also helped to get some more coaches in the mix. 

“John Loomis is a 10u coach, he was all about it,” McFadden said. “Coach Casey [Barnett], coach Katherine [Holtz] stepped up with younger kids… Growing up in a hockey culture, everybody pitches in.” 

Nine-year-old Grady Chapin told EBS in a phone call that he’s been playing hockey since he was 5. He’s seen more kids start playing and enjoys watching his teammates improve.  

“I’ve definitely improved my speed, defense and puck handling,” Chapin said. “I usually play left [defense] or left wing.” 

Pavelich speaks during the Marty Pavelich Ice Rink dedication ceremony. COURTESY OF MATT DODD

He’s looking forward to working on his shots and playing more games in the future. He said playing with older kids is the best way to learn, and it’s common for the Montana 64’s to combined practices.  

Although he was born more than half a century after Marty Pavelich played his last professional game with the Detroit Red Wings in 1957, Chapin said Pavelich helps the program a lot. Chapin has met the former NHL All-Star and four-time Stanley Cup champion a few times, and he said Pavelich always introduces himself to kids at the rink. 

Grupe remembers Pavelich dropping the puck a few times in the last two years.  

“I don’t know him very well, but he’s a great guy,” Grupe said. “Very outgoing and he’s got a love for hockey.” 

McFadden said Pavelich is very gracious with his time. Occasionally, he’ll stick around after games for an hour, talking with players from Big Sky and the visiting team.  

“We’re so grateful to have someone around who just loves the game and wants everybody to skate, have fun, be a good citizen,” McFadden said. “He tells players to work hard and be good to your coaches, and good to your parents.” 

In December 2022, the Big Sky Community Organization dedicated Big Sky’s home ice to Pavelich, now 95. 

“[Pavelich] said it was better than winning the Stanley Cup,” McFadden recalled. “It’s very flattering to have someone say that about your community and your program.” 

Pavelich (center, wearing orange) celebrates his rink’s dedication with coaches and players of the Montana 64’s. COURTESY OF MATT DODD

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