Gillette will field a junior hockey team at Cam-plex Spirit Hall in the upcoming season as the newest member of the American West Hockey League in Wyoming and Montana.
The league was certified by USA Hockey over the weekend, and the six-team association will begin play in Gillette in October, said Dwayne Dillinger, one of the founding partners for the new Gillette Wild team.
The Tier III junior hockey league will involve players from ages 16 to 20, some of whom will go on to earn college scholarships and others who may one day reach the National Hockey League.
“It’s the highest level of junior hockey in the United States,” said Dillinger. “I think fans will see kids who certainly will go on to play in college.”
The league also will include the Billings Bulls, Bozeman Icedogs, Great Falls Americans, Helena Bighorns and Missoula Maulers of Montana.
“We have been planning this day for two years,” said Dillinger. “We have had four exhibition games the past two years with average attendance figures over 1,200. Our staff has been actively recruiting and we are ready for the challenge.”
The Gillette Wild partners are planning to release more details about the upcoming season and the team later this week.
For now, Dillinger said the team will play a 44-game schedule, including 22 games at home.
Other Wyoming teams in Cody and Cheyenne will play for other junior hockey leagues.
Cody is a member of the Northern Pacific Hockey League with Butte and Whitefish, Mont., and will play the Gillette Wild and other American West teams.
Cheyenne also is a member of the Western States League. Dillinger said the Wild could possibly play Cheyenne in exhibition games, although that hasn’t yet been scheduled.
Players in the league will be housed by families in each community.
The American West Hockey League was originally formed in 1992 and suspended operations in 2003 when the league merged with the North American Hockey League.
The league was re-established this past summer when Bozeman, Billings, Helena and Missoual left to re-establish the AWHL.
“This is a great day for hockey in Montana and Wyoming,” said league 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 a result, the Bulls will play hockey in Billings for an 18th straight season. And Helena had won the NORPAC championship in six of the seven years the team had played in that league.
“While we may have had a good run over the past seven years, I believe that the level of continuity and parity within the AWHL will be second to none,” Helena president Mike Butters said. “We are all excited to drop the first puck.”