MISSOULA – Griz Hockey player Mason Perich never felt nervous before a game until his first action last year in front of over 1,200 roaring fans in Missoula’s Glacier Ice Rink.

Perich grew up playing hockey in Windsor, Colorado and played Division 1 hockey for the University of Colorado in Boulder, but he never saw an electric atmosphere like playing for the University of Montana.

“We never really got big turnouts in Boulder, but here it’s the thing to go and do,” said Perich. “I never experienced anything like that. It’s just awesome.”

Griz Hockey, an officially recognized club sport at UM, is in its second season after a seven-year absence. The beefed-up team has captured Missoula’s love of hockey and Griz sports. Home games pack the Glacier Ice Rink with a rowdy student section and fans who cram into standing-room-only spots to watch the action. The return of Griz Hockey also has renewed a rivalry with Montana State’s club hockey team.

“The way Griz Hockey has touched the community is one of the coolest things I’ve seen,” said UM alumnus Tucker Sargent, the hockey team’s general manager, who also coaches UM’s club lacrosse team. “Kids are lining up to fist bump the players, and they are looking at these players like they are true heroes.”

Sargent believes the team’s growth is partly due to its outreach with Missoula and surrounding communities. The team traveled to Philipsburg last year to visit locals and play on the city’s outdoor ice rink. Players also made an appearance at the Missoula grand opening of the sporting goods store Scheels.

To kick off this spring semester at UM, students and community members were invited to skate with the hockey team on the UM Oval’s ice rink.

“You have to be out in front of people to let them know who you are,” Sargent said. “Whether it’s giving the general hockey fan a reason to become a part of the Griz fan base, or letting the fan base know we’re here and trying to grow the sport and brand of the University of Montana.”

Earlier this month, Sargent gathered his team for a 20-mile bus ride to Woodman School, a K-8 school off Highway 12 west of Lolo. The team was greeted by 50 students eager to show the players an outdoor ice rink in front of their historic school. Woodman’s middle school students built the rink over the past three years, and proudly hung a Griz Hockey flag above the rink along with an American flag and Montana’s state flag.

“They have been skating out here for a few years, but this is the first year they have been really getting into hockey,” said Neil Murray, Woodman’s supervising teacher.

The Griz Hockey players scrimmaged in front of the students, and then invited them on the ice to teach them how to pass and shoot a puck. The young students asked questions about how the players balance on skates and how often they practice. One student asked if any of the players ever lost control and slid into the goal. Most of the players said they had.

“I like them to be able to see people who are really good at what they do,” Murray said. “And to be interested in something happening in the community.”

After the unforgettable day on the rink, the hockey team invited the Woodman students to their game against Williston State. The students spent the week making posters to bring to the game. After the Griz won, the players stayed to sign all the posters.

“It was really cool,” Sargent said. “It was intimate and fun and the players got to interact with them right after the game.”

Sargent marvels at the progress of his team since its return. The history of hockey at UM started in the 1970s with some college friends who called themselves the Flying Mules. In more recent years, the club was student-led but eventually dissolved. That’s when Sargent stepped in and worked to bring back Griz Hockey. He partnered with co-coaches Mike Anderson, former assistant coach of the Missoula Junior Bruins, and Will Grossman, manager of the local Hockey Wolf store.

With the help of a few others, the local men were able to recruit players – both locally and out-of-state – and built a team that now sells out the Glacier Ice Rink and competes in the American College Hockey Association.

“The goal is to make it an institution where it’s a community event that people look forward to,” Sargent said. “I think we can grow this to be bigger and better every year.”

Eddy Lochridge, a sophomore forward on the Griz Hockey team, grew up in Missoula and played for the Missoula Bruins in high school. He felt the local support of hockey as a kid, but nothing has compared to the crowds at the Griz Hockey games, he said.

“When I was in high school, it felt pretty cool if we had 100 people there,” Lochridge said. “It felt cool back then, but this is a step up.”

For Perich, a sophomore defenseman for the Griz, joining the team was his last chance to play competitive hockey in college. Injuries derailed his career at Colorado University and he was looking for one more opportunity to play. When Griz Hockey reached out, he wasn’t familiar with the team or Missoula. But after a visit, Perich was hooked.

Now he and the rest of the team are preparing for one of the biggest games of the year at home against rival Montana State, where Perich thought about attending before his visit to UM.

“I love hockey and I found this perfect opportunity,” Perich said. “I considered Bozeman, but once I heard about it here and visited, I knew this was my spot.”

- by Kyle Spurr, UM News Service -

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