At the one-thirds mark of the regular season, the Gillette Wild junior hockey team finds itself in a position to push for the North American Tier 3 Hockey League playoffs in March.
With a 7-5-1-1 record, the Wild sit in fifth place in the Frontier Division after being swept over the weekend on the road against the Sheridan Hawks. For forward Tristan Baker, who’s in his fourth year of junior hockey but his first season in Gillette, fifth place in the division isn’t good enough.
“We’re definitely not comfortable at all with (fifth place),” Baker said. “We’re right there with Great Falls and we’re right there with Sheridan. I know we can beat every team in this division if we play all 60 minutes.”
Gillette has 24 games left on the schedule, and players and coaches are looking to keep up the energy on the ice despite many obstacles in place due to COVID-19.
Plenty of adversity
For the first month before the season started, the Wild were forced to practice at the Campbell County Ice Arena instead of their home ice in the Spirit Hall Ice Arena.
Located in the Cam-plex Wyoming Center, Spirit Hall was closed for more than a month after the Campbell County Parks and Recreation Department discovered a leak in the rink’s cooling system.
The Wild players had to adjust to practicing on thinner ice than they were used to, Baker said. Gillette was practicing on ice half as deep as they were used to while they waited for repairs at Spirit Hall.
“Those first couple of weeks when we played on the road, we were going from small ice to huge ice,” Baker said.
Shortly after the season began, the Wild were dealt another blow when the team was forced to quarantine after several confirmed positive cases of COVID-19. The Wild had to cancel its first three home games of the season while the team self-isolated for two weeks.
While assistant coach Taylor Shaw said the three games will be played at a later date, missing the home opener in his first season in Gillette was definitely a wrench in the plans for Baker and his teammates.
The hockey team’s most recent challenge has been a new health order from Gov. Mark Gordon that limits indoor gatherings to 100 people. Over the last four games, the Wild have played in front of crowds of 25, 50 and 100 people.
“It’s definitely different,” Baker said. “I don’t really notice it as much when I’m on the ice, but when I’m on the bench waiting for my next shift, you definitely start to notice.”
One game at a time
The playoffs are the ultimate goal for everybody on the Wild’s roster, but to get there Baker said the team has to keep its focus on the next game on the schedule.
Through the first 14 games of the season, the Wild have struggled to play with intensity through all three periods, Baker said.
“Sometimes it’s the mental game that ends up beating you,” Baker said. “We definitely want to get one of the top seeds in the division so we don’t have to travel eight hours for a couple playoff games.”
The Wild aim to end a three-game skid with a home series Friday and Saturday against the Bozeman Icedogs at Spirit Hall.
Gillette will play six homes games throughout the month of December, playing weekend series against divsion opponents Bozeman, the Yellowstone Quake and the Great Falls Americans.
With limited fans 200 season ticket holders, the Wild may create a lottery to determine the 100 fans permitted for a certain game, managing partner Dwayne Dillinger said, but the team has yet to finalize any plans.