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Daily Dish: Guest Disher Cliff Cook Junior Hockey News

Published: Wednesday, 14 Aug 2019  
By: Cliff Cook


Why Missoula?
Well, first let me address something else at the risk of upsetting people in my own league, there is good hockey all over the country in a variety of leagues.

There, I said it.

Stephen Heisler and I have been friends for many years, and he’s asked me on more than one occasion to write something about my program, no matter where I was coaching, to help pump up recruitment. But I always felt that was my taking advantage of our friendship in the wrong way.

But, recent events have caused me to step back and realize what a resource I have access too, not only as a staff member of Victorious Hockey Company alongside amazing people like Stephen and Wenatchee Wild Head Coach Bliss Littler, but because I’ve developed a trust, and vice versa, with Stephen and his belief in what I am able to bring to a program like the Missoula Bruins.

Yes, I know, this appears to be a horn-tooting escapade and I’ve been accused of that over the years (a comment on an old version of the JuniorHockey.com forum comes to mind, and I still laugh to this day about it).

But when significant negative recruiting and outright lies, not even about our program but about our league recently cost me a couple of prospects, I couldn’t sit quiet anymore and it was time to talk Missoula Bruins hockey.

I won’t negative recruit, ask anyone who knows me. I refuse to do it. If I can’t get players to come to my program based on my own merit, accomplishments and what we provide here, then that’s on me.

Here are just a few data points about the NA3HL that need to be out there before I get into Missoula.

Just from 2018-2019 alone there were 26 NA3HL players drafted (2 Missoula Bruins btw) and 26 players tendered in the NAHL. OK, let me stop you here because I know what the comeback always is here, “but they have to draft and tender an NA3HL player!” Yup, that’s absolutely true and I often wondered about that, even talked to some friends of mine in other leagues (how dare I) and we all came up with the same reaction, why is that so bad?

Why is it so wrong to require that of the NAHL? It’s not at all. What it tells me and yes, I may be biased coaching in the league now (I’ve also coached in the WSHL, USPHL and MnJHL), it tells me that your chances of getting drafted or tendered kind of take a boost knowing that requirement exists.

OK, so a few more data points, since people need to know, during the season 22 NA3HL players were called up to the NAHL, 47 total current or former NA3HL players played at least one game in the league and 25 finished the season on an NAHL protected list. Those are the highest totals in league history by the way following a steady growth over the years.

Now that we’ve covered that…

Why Missoula?

Well first off, before we even get into hockey, it’s simply a spectacularly beautiful area (yes that is Missoula in the graphic for this novel I’ve written). If you’ve never been to this part of the world, you’re missing out. Stunning mountain views, spectacular river runs and not one, but two national parks within a few hours drive. That alone is enough for a visit, no?

Then there are the people. The people here are wonderful. From all walks of life, all religious, political and ethnic backgrounds that make a wonderful and educational community where people, generally speaking, respect the views of each other even in disagreement (could use a little more of that everywhere I think).

It’s a college town. The University of Montana is a beautiful campus with wonderful programs and an exciting athletic program highlighted by the Grizz football team and a variety of very successful men’s and women’s sports.

There is a fantastic figure skating program that finds success despite having to spend much of their summer finding ice to train in hours away while Glacier Ice Rink gets set up for the Western Montana Fair. The curling club is massive as well. Despite the late-night time slots they have a huge membership of dedicated curlers.

But the hockey you ask? Well we’ll get to the Bruins shortly. Let’s start in an unusual place, the Glacier Hockey League. The GHL boasts one of the largest adult hockey leagues in the country (Top-25 in the U.S. in fact) if you can believe that. Over 1,100 registered players on over 80 teams of all skill levels in a city of just over 73,000 people.

And the youth hockey. Well, it was just a couple years ago the Missoula Bruins H.S. team finished runner-up at the USA Hockey High School National Tournament. Yup, tiny little Missoula, MT nearly won Nationals, finishing second to a team from Frisco, TX. The youth program continues to grow and improve and will likely have more national contenders in the near future, particularly with their ever-growing girl’s program.

As I’ve said since the day I arrived, Missoula is a hockey town that just doesn’t know it yet!
So, about our Jr. Bruins. We’re very proud of our program. In just three short seasons the Bruins have sent nearly 20 players to college and just this past season had two players drafted into the North American Hockey League. This past year we won our first playoff game in franchise history in front of our biggest crowd since the first season of Bruins hockey (estimated 850 people).

Along with our full-time locker room and coach’s offices, we have full-time athletic training staff courtesy of the University of Montana Athletic Training Department. They are at every practice and every game. Heck, our Head Trainer is even a hockey guy having grown up playing high school hockey in Wisconsin (I wish he was young enough to be eligible, he's really that good still!) We have a team doctor, a team dentist and a team massage therapist. We intentionally don’t have our own bus. You may ask why? We appreciate the comfort in knowing we work with a reputable company in Missoula who is bound by the regulations of the state and federal transportation laws. And they take good care of us.

While I have over 20 years coaching experience, including eight at the junior level, I’d prefer to talk about my amazingly talented assistant coach. Anyone who has been around hockey, or any sport for that matter, know the bonus of having a talented assistant. And we have one of the best here in Mike Anderson, a St. Paul, MN-native who is one of the most talented individual skills coaches I’ve ever been around, not to mention he’s just a highly intelligent hockey coach who is dedicated to his players.

We have, now two, of the finest workout facilities I’ve ever seen in my years of coaching at this level or higher levels I’ve witnessed. We are fortunate to have full access to the 56,600 sq. ft. Peak Health and Wellness Center and beginning this year we will also be accessing Fuel Fitness Missoula, just a couple blocks from Glacier Ice Rink.

Our focus is on player development and movement. Buzzwords to be sure, but our goal is solely on giving our players every opportunity to either move up the NAHL or BCHL or get them prepared to begin their college careers. Our focus is not on hanging banners in our rink. Championships are fun and we’d love a chance to compete for one but winning for us is seeing our guys progress through their hockey careers.

From an on-ice perspective we have moved right along with the progression of where hockey has been headed over the last few years. We play a nearly system-less and position-less style of hockey, instead focusing on individual development. If we can take the tools a player already has and expand on those while helping create an environment to increase hockey IQ, then we feel we’ve done our job.

To create that environment, we practice four days a week, with on practice a week specifically focused on station-based training with Coach Anderson leading the way. Our final practices of the week begin with a split session of forward and defensemen before coming together to go over special teams concepts and ideas for all our players, not just our so-called top end guys.

The concept takes some getting used to for guys. Most players, myself included from my playing days and early days coaching, were so used to playing to specific systems and when things were messed up knowing the chance of getting a tongue-lashing or benched during a game were high. That’s not the way we work here in Zootown. Players don’t learn by sitting. If mistakes are made, we discuss quickly, put the responsibility back on the player to think of other ways of thinking the game, then we have them go try what they came up with. Allowing the creativity to shine through, once they know they have the freedom to do so, creates exciting hockey and a growth in ability I hadn’t seen in my early coaching career.

And we promote the heck out of our guys. Using my background in journalism and P.R. (this rambling doesn't necessarily back that up) and Coach Anderson’s educational prowess (oh, did I mention he’s a high school English teacher by day?) we put together comprehensive and dynamic player profiles that are updated regularly, that includes regular individual player meetings and we send those profiles out monthly to every NAHL, BCHL and NCAA program in the country.

So, with all that said, why Missoula? As cheesy as it may seem, my response would simply be why not Missoula. There is everything here a dedicated player could want to succeed.

P.S. I really wish I could update this profile photo below...

Author: Cliff Cook


* Disclaimer: This site may contain advice, opinions and statements from various authors and information providers. Views expressed in this article reflect the personal opinion of the author, Cliff Cook, and not necessarily the views of JuniorHockey.com. JuniorHockey.com does not represent or endorse the accuracy or reliability of any advice, opinion, statement or other info provided in the article, or from any other member of this site.
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