By Jon Frank, News Record sports writer
The Gillette Wild junior tier-III hockey team received an award for American West Hockey League Organization of the Year last week for its presence in the community.
Wild President Dwayne Dillinger said it was a point of emphasis to build a program that would be well received and closely tied to the community. He followed that up by bringing in Tom Winkler as a coach and general manager, who in turn recruited players who would mesh with the team’s philosophy.
The expansion team spent countless hours of its off-ice time working with a variety of charities and local organizations throughout the year, including the Learn to Skate, and Blades and Avalanche Learn to Play hockey program. Both programs expanded significantly after the players began volunteering their time. The players spent a few nights a week coaching the younger kids.
The team also made several reading visits to elementary schools, volunteered with the Salvation Army during Christmas, held a Pink-in-the-Rink Cancer Awareness game with a jersey auction and also a Relay for Life cancer jersey fundraiser.
“As a first-year club, Gillette exuded qualities on and off the ice that make them truly deserving of the award,” American West Hockey League Commissioner Mike Butters said in an email. “From their ownership to the coaches and players, they were exemplary in all aspects of what an AWHL team should strive for.”
But the award is also a reflection on the Gillette community, Dillinger said.
“For it to happen in the first year goes to show both how hard the organization has worked and how the community has worked,” he said.
The award was voted on by the other hockey organizations in the league.
Dillinger said the award was given, in part, because of the welcoming nature visiting teams receive from the community.
Winkler, who moved from Virginia to Gillette last summer to coach the team, said he was pleased with how supportive the community has been during the last year.
“You really saw it with the kids wearing the replica jerseys,” he said.
There was plenty of uncertainty heading into the 2011-12 season. The Wild play in the smallest market in their division and are the only Wyoming-based team.
But Dillinger and other members of the organization believed Gillette’s community was sufficient to support the team.
Thanks to the help of volunteers and local interest, Dillinger’s dream of sustaining a junior team in the area seems feasible.
“For the most part, everything this year pretty well exceeded our expectations,” he said.