This time last year, then 15-year-old Bryce Jensen was scoring a boatload of goals during his freshman year for his Yankton, S.D., high school hockey team. Fifty some odd pucks coming off his stick last winter found the back of the net, so many in fact, he can’t even remember the exact tally count. Problem was, in his own words, his team was awful, as was the level of prep hockey play in southeastern South Dakota.
So when a junior hockey scout told the tall, curly-haired Jensen that he plays this cold weather game pretty darn well and needed to find ice time with other teenagers who played the game pretty darn well, he listened up. As did his parents.
Last August, two months after completing his first year in high school, around the time of his 16th birthday, Jensen’s father drove the youngster 679 miles over to Billings, dropped him off with a new family, enrolled him in a new high school, turned him over to a new hockey coach, then turned around and went back to Yankton to continue his work as a taxidermist, minus a child in the household. Dad wrote a few checks also, that we’ll explain in a bit.
Just like that, Jensen signed an amateur contract and became a winger for the Billings Bulls junior hockey team. And despite an injury to his wrist that’s kept him out of recent matches, the lanky lad finds the Magic City and Treasure State to his liking.
Why? Well, sure, some co-eds over at Billings Senior High School are Rocky Mountain cute and the peaks up in Glacier National Park are breath taking to first behold, nothing like the drab flat eastern Dakota cornfields. But the main reason is because Jensen is essentially playing full-time hockey in Montana for eight months.
It’s the game he passionately loves, meshing his talent with some pretty darn good teammates, not to mention opponents, all helping elevate his stick handling and skating skills for the future.
Housemate and Bulls teammate Ray Smith, a Texan, and Jensen begin their weekdays with a 5 a.m. wake-up and small breakfast before a team workout session at Oz Fitness Center. Then it’s on to school for a full day of classes, minus a period. The boys are let out early to get over to the Centennial Ice Arena for two hours of practice starting at 2 p.m.
Come late afternoon the players are spent and famished, hoping their host mom, Chris Muri, made a big batch of carb-replenishing tater tot or Dorito casserole. Jensen prioritizes time carefully to later evening study, and that’s resulted in straight A’s on both his sophomore report cards.
Game days, usually on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, tend to be longer, since most contests begin at 7:30 p.m. The boys return home well past midnight on up-and-back road trips to Bozeman, Helena, Great Falls, or Cody and Gillette, Wyo. They stay overnight on two brutally long bus trips to Kalispell and back.
“I would recommend playing junior hockey [to skilled youngsters thinking about it], but of course they need to know there’s a lot of focus, time and commitment,” said Dixon Whitehead, 17, a third-line scrappy center in his second year with the Bulls. “You’ll be away from home for a long while, away from family and friends, and I can get homesick, a lot sometimes.”
Whitehead, with California blond surfer looks, was born in rural Tennessee, grew up in Justin, Texas, and started his junior hockey career in Minnesota before being traded to the Bulls late last season.
A high school B-average senior, he works part-time laying concrete. Like hockey fervent Jensen, he saw subpar play in his southern hometown and knew he needed to jump in his Ford pickup and go north to improve.
Transacted by hockey teams. Solo cross-country reporting trips. Three high schools in three years, in three states, with three families. Our society says at 18 boys become men. In junior hockey, perhaps earlier.
“Our goal at the end of the season is to have the players get better than when they come in at the start of the season,” said second-year assistant coach Joe Deptula. “But we also want them to become better men. When the young guys come in, they are boys. Many are just 16-year-olds.”
Bulls owner Joe Robillard has head coach Chris Hartly and Deptula recruit and bring in kids from all over the country and abroad. He says some fit in right away. Others can’t handle being away from home and the demanding schedule.
Deptula, originally from Alaska, says Bulls players’ future aspirations playing junior hockey are twofold. The Bulls are a Tier III Junior A hockey organization, essentially entry level for juniors. Coaches hope to develop the 16-year-olds, like Jensen and Christian Akita, with South Pacific Island roots, to move on and play in advanced Tier II and I leagues, and who knows, perhaps a life in professional hockey. Or, at least a scholarship to play college hockey.
The team hangs on to some players who “slip through the cracks” and don’t advance to the next level, but play hard and well for the team, becoming fan favorites like Oregonian defenseman Nikolas Nasby, 20, in his fourth year with the Bulls. Hartly, another Oregonian, in his fourth season running the squad, says at least 10 ex-Bulls during the last two campaigns have gone on to play NCAA Division III hockey, an accomplishment the coaches relish as much as any American West League title.
Parents are willing to take the chance that a junior hockey experience will result in their son’s college education being paid for to some degree. The big lottery dream is their kid being paid handsomely to play. They fork out between $5,000 and $6,000 for their son to play Tier III junior hockey each season, in addition to $300 a month for room and board. When players move up, advanced tier teams cover more of the player expenses.
It’s not cheap. Many older players have part-time jobs.
Being around current Bulls players, one thing stands out, whatever their skill level. The boys, at their hormonal peak, are rink rats - they simply love the energized skating, hard slap shots and harder checks. At this time, it’s No. 1 in their lives.
To be able to play advanced organized hockey in front of hundreds of paying, cheering fans is like a dream come true. Kids ask them for autographs. How cool. For many, being a Billings Bull will be their hockey highpoint in life.
Assistant captain Steven Thompson is from Palmdale, Calif. The 19-year-old left winger had no high school hockey team, so he played on any youth team available. When he graduated, what he knew is he just wanted to string it out and play hockey as long as he could.
Coach Hartly had coached his brother and knew more than anything, another savvy Thompson, the team’s third-leading points getter, with good hockey sense, would play hard and mentor the younger guys.
College or a working life is on hold for the time being.
“I have no regrets about playing junior hockey,” said the second-year Bull. “Not at all. I love hockey so much, just being able to play every day, being with the guys, the team. Even the road trips I don’t mind, all the fun we have coming home on the bus, chatting until four in the morning and playing cards.”