The Missoula Bruins high school hockey team will be home for Christmas this year, as they host their ninth annual Missoula Holiday Classic tournament running from Saturday to Tuesday.
What the Bruins’ players need more than the season’s hottest gift this Christmas, though, is to get healthy for the tourney. Even though they went 4-0 on Dec. 20-21, they skated with just nine players -- six Bruins, all forwards, were down with injury or illness.
“We’ve just been in survival mode until now. We were playing with a skeleton roster, just trying to get to the holidays in one piece,” said Bruins coach Greg Robitaille, who canceled practice Friday. “We moved some (defensemen) up to forward and (they) just loved it. Players got a bunch of ice time.”
Although the nine skaters managed a weekend sweep, helping Missoula to a 10-0 league record to start the season in first place, they won’t turn away reinforcements. Austin North, Danny Lochridge and Frank Dean, who have combined for 36 points this season, will return to the ice in time to take on Missoula’s first-round opponent, the Helena Bighorns.
The Bighorns are the lone team in the tournament A Division that the Bruins have faced this season. Missoula topped Helena 7-6 and 7-5 on Dec. 13-14 in two high-scoring games.
“Helena … they’re a very strong team. We got two wins over them two weeks ago, but they’ll be looking for some revenge for sure,” Robitaille said.
North recorded a hat trick and an assist in the first game against the Bighorns, Lochridge tallied three goals in the two games, and team captain Dylan Leadbetter put two in the net on the second day.
Leadbetter is one player who has stayed healthy, and he’s first on the team -- one full of positive players -- in points, with 58. No player on the Bruins is minus, a testament to the depth of the squad.
“We’ve had three consecutive games with three different guys with three different hat tricks, and that’s what we need,” coach Robitaille said. “We’re not the biggest, we’re not the strongest, but we definitely have some great team speed.
“What’s really exciting for me as a coach -- it’s a very young team, we only have a few upperclassmen on the team -- but every game it seems someone else steps up and takes on a leadership role. Somebody else fills in the gap. They just seem to really be rallying around each other amazingly well.”
The Spokane Jr. Chiefs, Idaho Falls Eagles and Sun Valley Suns will join the Bruins and Bighorns at the Holiday Classic in the A Division. The Moscow Bears, Invermere Rockies, Chestermere Lakers and the Missoula Bruins B squad make up the B Division.
Missoula hasn't faced Spokane since the Chiefs beat the Bruins at last year's Holiday Classic.
“Traditionally, Spokane, Idaho Falls and Sun Valley are strong and competitive teams,” Robitaille said. “We’re just going to need to man up again and accept the challenge, whoever we have ready to go.”
The Bruins have to like their chances in avenging last year’s fifth-place finish. Both Bruins goalies, Justin Lane and Wyatt Rea, have a save percentage in the high 80-percent range, and the two have combined for five shutouts and a 14-2-1 overall record. Missoula has scored 119 goals and allowed just 31.
They Bruins will put those numbers to the test on at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Glacier Ice Rink in the tournament’s opener against the Bighorns. They close out the tournament’s opening day at 7 p.m. against Sun Valley.