AMERICAN WEST HOCKEY LEAGUE ACCEPTED AS NEWEST ADDITION TO USA HOCKEY JUNIORS
Montana, Wyoming Teams Set to Play This October
Colorado Springs, CO – The USA Hockey Annual General Meetings concluded this past weekend with the certification of the American West Hockey League (AWHL).
The AWHL will be comprised of teams in Montana and Wyoming and will begin play this October. The 6-team league will consist of the Billings Bulls, Bozeman Icedogs, Gillette Wild, Great Falls Americans, Helena Bighorns and Missoula Maulers.
The AWHL was originally formed back in 1992 and suspended operations in 2003 when the league merged with the North American Hockey League. The league has produced NHL players such as Pat Dwyer (Carolina Hurricanes and Chris Holt (St. Louis Blues) and was a top developing grounds for a few hundred NCAA college hockey players during that time. The league was re-established this past summer when Bozeman, Billings, Helena and Missoula informed their former league that they would be leaving to pursue their re-establishment in the AWHL.
“This is a great day for hockey in Montana and Wyoming,” claims AWHL President, Michael Burks. “We wanted to establish a set of higher standards for our organizations and the only viable way was to bring back the AWHL.”
As part of their re-establishment, the AWHL have put forth a Standards of Excellence package that establishes criteria that is higher and broader in scope than it’s Tier III counterparts. This package includes everything from an increased amount of practice time to off ice workouts and direct involvement with their youth hockey teams. It even includes educational and nutrition standards.
“The standards are what drove us towards creating the league,” says Bozeman owner, Mark D’Agostino. “While we have always prided ourselves on a high set of guidelines to develop our players, we can now do it on a league-wide scale without the concern of teams’ ability to adhere to this. The players should see the difference over the course of the season.”
As the senior member in junior hockey, the Billings Bulls will see hockey in that city for an unprecedented 18th season. Bulls owner, Doug Strong, is eagerly planning for the season. “Bulls hockey has been the cornerstone of junior hockey and throughout the years we have evolved to this point to where we feel we have the best opportunity to succeed. We have been a top team at every level and we will work hard to insure this trend continues.”
The league will play a minimum of 44 games, which will include games against current Northern Pacific Hockey League (NORPAC) teams in Butte, Whitefish and Cody, WY as part of a separation settlement between the two leagues. “We (AWHL) made a commitment to play the NORPAC teams located in our footprint,” says Great Falls Americans owner, Jim Keough. “It will present a good opportunity to alleviate travel costs for the NORPAC and will provide a chance to have some spirited competition within the two leagues.” According to sources from both leagues, a settlement agreement was reached which would allow for the AWHL to begin play for the 2011-12 season. Other terms of the agreement were not disclosed.
As the newest member to junior hockey, the Gillette Wild will already have the fan support in the AWHL’s newest market. “We have been planning this day for two years,” claims Gillette owner, Dwayne Dillinger. “We have had 4 exhibition games of the past two years with average attendance figures over 1500. Our staff has been activity recruiting and we are ready for the challenge.”
One of the biggest challenges for the re-established league is to build on their history of past performance and deliver the quality of programs they have come to know. One thing that will ease the transition is that they will have the current 2011 USA Hockey Tier III A National Champion Helena Bighorns as a part of the league. Prior to re-joining the AWHL, Helena had won the NORPAC Championship 6 of the 7 years they played there. Bighorn President, Mike Butters, was exited about the prospect of a re-established AWHL. “While we may have had a good run over the past 7 years, I believe that the level of continuity and parity within the AWHL will be second to none. We have always contended that you are only as good as the teams you play.” Butters added, “We are thankful to NORPAC to allow us the opportunity to play as the AWHL this season. We are all exited to drop the first puck.”
The AWHL website (theawhl.com) is relative days away from completion. A scheduled release on the precise date of the launch will be forthcoming.