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An unexpected meeting brought Great Falls a league MVP

03/13/2014, 5:15pm MDT
By Tom Robinson - Special to USAHockey.com

Great Falls Americans coach Jeff Heimel stepped into a hockey rink pro shop in Alaska looking for laces. He came out with a Most Valuable Player.

Heimel was attending a summer tryout camp for the North American Hockey League’s Kenai River Brown Bears. When he recognized the worker at the pro shop from a previous Brown Bears tryout camp, the recruiting instincts kicked in.

From that visit, Heimel and forward Aaron McInnis began discussions that resulted in the player leaving Anchorage, Alaska, and returning to the sport he had left behind after not making it through the Brown Bears’ 2012 tryout camp.

McInnis made his way to Montana and came out of his return to the sport with the honor of being selected American West Hockey League MVP. He even made a brief three-game jump to play with the Brown Bears during the season.

“I was really excited,” McInnis said before boarding a bus back to Great Falls Wednesday night after the Americans opened a two-game lead over the Gillette Wild in the league semifinal series. “I had never left Alaska for any extended period of time. I had opportunities, but I had never left.

“With it being my last possible year of junior hockey, I knew I would regret it if I didn’t come.”

McInnis did not play for a first-place team or lead the league in scoring, but he did make an impression on the opposing coaches who voted for the MVP award, just as he made an impression on Heimel during a 2012 tryout that had not worked out the way McInnis hoped.

“I ran into him when I was scouting Kenai’s pre-draft camp, and he was working in the pro shop,” Heimel said. “I had really liked him the year before. I just needed a pair of laces, and that sparked a conversation with him that sparked a conversation with his family.

“I wasn’t expecting to see him there.”

McInnis had thought he finished up his hockey days after three seasons of sandwiching Alaska’s split Midget schedule around his high school season. He led the Alaska Wolves Midget AAA team in scoring before temporarily stepping away from the game.

“I did a junior hockey main camp back in August of 2012, and after that I hung them up,” McInnis said. “I didn’t have any expectations of playing hockey again competitively.”

McInnis made it to Montana and helped Great Falls continue its climb in the AWHL. A team that won just one regular-season game two years ago now has its first two AWHL playoff wins ever.

McInnis shared the league lead with seven game-winning goals and was the only AWHL player outside of the league-leading Helena Bighorns to go plus-50. He shook off a concussion scare in November to compile 29 goals and 43 assists in 42 games to rank fifth in the AWHL in points while also helping the Americans to second place with a 36-9-3 record.

While piling up the other numbers, McInnis kept his penalty minutes total small, spending just 14 minutes in the box all season.

“I don’t do anything stupid,” McInnis said. “I don’t like to be in the penalty box, and I don’t do anything cheap. … I just pride myself on being a good defensive player. I don’t know why the coaches selected me, but I’m honored.”

McInnis received three honors when the AWHL did its end of season awards: MVP, Best Forward and first-team all-star. Heimel shared Coach of the Year with Mark Vichorek of the Bozeman Icedogs.

Helena’s Nick Okada was named Best Defenseman, Bozeman’s Gunnar Mogck was Rookie of the Year and Pierre Gustafsson of the Glacier Nationals was Best Goalie.

Other AWHL honors were: Scholastic Player of the Year, Robbie Lantz of the Gillette Wild; Referee of the Year, Alex Aiken; Organization of the Year, Helena; Community Service Awards, Steven Nisbet of Bozeman, Nikolas Nasby of Billing Bulls, Paul Kinder of Glacier, Edison Elder of Yellowstone Quake, Donovan Mattfeldt of Great Falls, Theo Campe of Helena, and Josh Beatty of Gillette.

McInnis, Gustafsson, Mattfeldt, Mogck and Okada joined Helena forward Dylan Webster as first-team all-stars.

The second team consisted of Gillette goalie Sean Kelley, Great Falls goalie Erik Powell, Gillette defenseman Moco Willis, Helena defenseman Ryan Webber, Yellowstone defenseman Josh Newman, Great Falls forward Lucas Lomax, Helena forward Sebastian Hansson and Yellowstone forward Jimmy Tich.

Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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