The Missoula Maulers are no strangers to change, having begun their existence as a member of the Northern Pacific Hockey League in 2007, before making the seamless jump to the American West Hockey League in 2011 and now, just two years later, they're set to officially begin their Western States Hockey League tenure on September 20.
Noticing the tremendous growth of the league, the high level of competition and an overall better opportunity to expose his players, Owner Michael Burks jumped at the chance to make the jump to the WSHL, which means his Maulers will now be playing in their third league in seven seasons.
Now, they may be new to the league but don't expect the Maulers to look anything like a first-year team when they step onto the ice for their season opener against the Seattle Totems, as they've been successful wherever they have gone and should slide right into the Northwest Division and contend from the outset.
In talking with Burks and Head Coach/General Manager Marcus Baxter, the two were overjoyed to make the move to the WSHL for a number of reasons but of course, their loyalty and devotion to their players was at the top of the list.
They also like the fact that every game will be a battle, as the competition level is so high across all four divisions that you can't afford to take a single night off. This differs from a number of Tier III leagues, where the top two or three teams can't be touched and the season reads like a script of a familiar novel.
They also like the ability to play and see a number of different teams from all over the western United States, a change that will probably be well-received by their rowdy crowd of adoring fans, who Baxter says are a big part of the Maulers' success. Burks, who is a figurehead in the city and owns a number of businesses in the area, makes sure his team is heavily involved in the community and in turn, the community gives right back to them in the form of billet families and support during every home game at Glacier Ice Rink.
The Maulers haven't just been a local feel-good story however, they've been a contender since their inception in 2007, making the playoffs all four years in the NORPAC and each of their two in the AWHL. They even sported the AWHL's best regular season record in 2011-2012, better than even the perennial power Helena Bighorns.
They'll fit right into the Northwest Division this season with the likes of the three-time defending Thorne Cup Champion Idaho Jr. Steelheads, former NORPAC foes Southern Oregon Spartans and Seattle Totems and two Utah teams that are rising to power, the Ogden Mustangs and Salt Lake City Moose.
Carrying over their success isn't going to be easy, especially with a lot more teams to contend with but what Burks has built in Missoula isn't going away anytime soon and a change of pace can be a good thing for a sports team, especially one that plays with as much emotion and fight as the Maulers always seem to, so look for them to roll into Seattle and make some noise early on.
Players Moving Up:
Burks and Baxter know junior hockey and understand the name of the game is moving players on and although they had a young roster last season, a number of players will be suiting-up at higher levels this fall.
The lone player moving on to the college hockey ranks is captain Brett Mathews, who will take his talents to Ashland, Wisconsin and play at Northland College.
Tyler Zandhuisen and Paige Maul (what a fitting last name) are both set to head north of the border and play Tier II hockey for the Brooks Bandits of the Alberta Junior Hockey League, while Dylan Chase has hooked on with the Michigan Warriors of the North American Hockey League.
Lastly, forward Viktor Steenson is returning to his home country of Sweden to play professionally.
Players Coming Back:
Baxter was very excited at the return of goaltender Cody Janzen, as he thought the Saskatchewan native might latch on at the Tier II level but is happy to have him back between the pipes, which gives the Maulers a solid start, as they build from the net out.
Also returning is Missoula native Anders Nord, who was one of the team's leaders last year and will be expected to continue that in his third season with the club.
Baxter is still waiting on a few players to confirm their return and is rounding up a few others but he was confident the Maulers will have a solid core of veterans to lean on.
Another bonus in their move to the WSHL, is the fact that Burks and Baxter can recruit up to eight import players, where as the last two years, they were limited to just two. Baxter has already used his contacts overseas to bring in speedy forward William Panes, whom he expects will step right into a top-six role. He's also working on a few other Europeans, who seem to adapt well to the climate in Missoula.
He also was excited to acquire Erich Jaeger, a forward out of Idaho, who should settle in nicely, as well.
Although the Maulers will be traveling a little further than they did in their previous two leagues, the fact that they play nothing but three game weekends in the WSHL is a plus and their out of division schedule isn't too lengthy.
In division, they'll play six games against each opponent, with Idaho and the two Utah teams not too long of hauls, Seattle being a little longer and Southern Oregon taking the cake as the only true trek.
Out of division, they'll take on the Phoenix Knights at home and on the road, as well as traveling to Valencia to face the up-and-coming Flyers and hosting the Boulder Bison.
Overall, Baxter likes the new schedule and feels that the increased competition in the regular season will be a big boost for his team come playoff time.
Together, Burks and Baxter are ready to lead the Maulers into a new chapter in their existence, one that they hope will bring them more wins and college commitments, all the while solidifying their status as one of the best all-around junior hockey programs and experiences in the United States. If this chapter is anything like the two they've written in the NORPAC and AWHL, they'll be just fine.
Brent Maranto is the Western States Hockey League's Director of Communications