MISSOULA — Hockey might not have the same following in Montana as it does in Mike Anderson’s home state of Minnesota, but that didn’t stop him from setting lofty expectations this season for the University of Montana club team.
“I think the sky’s the limit, to be honest. We set the goal of making Nationals. As a third-year program, it's a pretty pie in the sky goal, but we think we have the group to do it,” Anderson said after a recent practice at the Glacier Ice Rink. “We're looking good for Regionals. If we can get there, we know we can make a run and make some noise.”
Anderson, a St. Paul, Minnesota, native who has lived in Missoula for eight years, is in his third season coaching the Griz hockey team, which returned to the ice in 2021 after a seven-year hiatus. Now with just two games remaining in the 2023-24 regular season, Anderson and the team have seen quick growth over the past three years.
“I think the biggest thing I like this year is there is an intention to play hockey at a little bit more of a sophisticated level,” Anderson said. “We don't always accomplish that. But there is a general intention in following of an idea to like, maybe let's just not throw it up ice and throw the puck around and slap it around. Let's try to have possession. Let's try and get high-level shots. ... So that's been really cool to see. It's been three years of trying to implement that kind of style and structure. And I think this year, especially towards the end, we're finding out who we are, and it's all starting to come together, which is cool.”
The Griz are 17-14 this season but have been playing their best hockey the past two months. They’re ranked eighth in the West Region of the American Collegiate Hockey Association’s Division II. The top 14 teams qualify for the regional tournament Feb. 23-25 at North Logan, Utah.
"I think we can move the puck well. I think if we focus, if we're all dialed in, we can put in the heart and get the job done," said Alex Neibauer, a freshman defenseman. "I think it does come down to focus. Sometimes we'll be playing, sometimes we'll beat (Montana State, the top-ranked team in the West) and sometimes we'll be losing to teams that we shouldn't lose to. So I do think comes down to focus. But I mean, if we get shots on net, get a couple of good bounces, a lot can take us far that way."
Neibauer started playing hockey in Missoula when he was 4 years old and is a graduate of Loyola Sacred Heart High School, so he’s seen firsthand the re-emergence and growth of the Griz program.
But his teammates from out of state are experiencing Montana hockey for the first time.
“I'll be wearing a Griz hockey T-shirt or something like that out, you know, doing whatever in Missoula, and people will say, 'Hey, Griz hockey, like, we love coming to the games,'” said Javy Hamlin, a sophomore defenseman from St. Paul, Minnesota. “And I know students really love coming to the games, and it seems like it's built a community around here.”
While the Griz feel a strong connection to the Missoula community, they’re playing without the benefit of being an NCAA-sanctioned sport at the university.
“I'd say the biggest difference is access to resources on campus, not that we should have them. You know, we're a club team, but that's a big, stark difference,” Anderson said. “We don't have tutors, we don't have a workout facility, we don't have staff beyond a bunch of part-time guys trying to make it work.”
“I think it's honestly a bigger grind for us, you know, having to ... work ahead with teachers, with homework, schoolwork. But that kind of adds to the enjoyment of it,” Hamlin said. “And it can get really crazy at times, but we all, I think, enjoy it a lot. Not everything's given to us, you know, like it would be at a higher level, so we make the best of what we got here.”
The Griz close out their regular-season home schedule with a game against Montana State at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Glacier Ice Rink. The Griz and Cats play in Bozeman on Saturday.