By RYAN MCCRACKEN on October 10, 2020.
The Missoula Junior Bruins have been making the most of some southern Alberta flavour to open the North American 3 Hockey League season.
With former Medicine Hat Tigers forward Emerson Etem behind the bench and a trio of local players up front in Kieran Christianson, Mason Mowat and Tyler Broesky, the Junior Bruins are well on their way to some success south of the border with a 2-0 start to the season.
“Kieran and Mason were lights out (on the weekend),” said Etem, adding Broesky recently signed with the team and entered the roster Friday. “Both (Mowat and Christianson) tucked in their first NA3HL goals. That was big, a big weight off their shoulders and now they can just go from there. … (Broesky) just came up here, so we’re implementing systems with him.”
Christianson says he entered his first NA3HL game on Oct. 2 with a few butterflies in his stomach, but the 16-year-old Hatter took the ice the following day, picked up the puck and snapped his first goal into the net to help his new team to a 5-3 win over the Yellowstone Quake.
“The first game I was a little bit nervous going in, but as it went on I got a little bit more confidence,” said Christianson. “When the second game came I was more ready, and I just shot it and the puck went in the net.”
Mowat’s first tally required a bit more grit in his team’s 6-3 win over Yellowstone to open the season. The 17-year-old Brooks product had to shake off a heavy hit in 3-on-3 action before earning a second chance at the net and making good on the opportunity.
“I had the puck and I tried to dangle one guy but got hit pretty hard. I got right back up, got the puck, then actually went around that one guy and made a decent move on the goaltender for the goal, which put us up 4-2 in the third,” said Mowat. “Both scoring goals the first weekend, it’s pretty special for both of us and we’re pretty happy about the outcome.”
The NA3HL has been operating with a nearly normal schedule. While the regular season has been trimmed by four games and the league’s annual showcase in December will not take place, the Junior Bruins are still in for a campaign that features 20 games at home and 20 more on the road.
“Already being able to play a couple games, it feels so good. Stepping out on the ice for warm-ups in that first game just felt unreal,” said Mowat. “For a while there we were all uncertain if our season was going to get going, and I guess there are still guys out there that don’t quite know if they’re going to get going.”
Mowat, Christianson and Broesky all grew up playing their hockey in Medicine Hat. Christianson is coming off a strong season with the SEAC U16 squad, posting 12 goals and 20 assists over 37 games, while Mowat put up 12 goals and 17 assists over 34 games with the Medicine Hat Hounds U18 program last year.
Broesky, 16, spent last season bouncing between programs, but played the previous year alongside Christianson on the SEAC’s U15s, recording 20 goals and 16 assists over 27 games.
“They’re both hard-working kids and we just have that chemistry from playing with each other in the past,” Christianson said of Broesky and Mowat, adding that work ethic will be needed in the NA3HL. “The training has been high-intensity compared to what we do in midget. It’s just been faster and more competitive.”
The trio of southern Albertans signed on with the Junior Bruins shortly after Etem took on the role of head coach and general manager. Etem had already established a relationship with all three thanks to his previous role as a skills coach with South Alberta Hockey Academy in Dunmore.
The first-round NHL draft pick had his playing career cut short due to injury, but has been flourishing as an educator of the game in the less than two years since retiring from professional competition, and his young students have taken notice.
“With this whole coronavirus, just in case there wasn’t a season I kind of wanted to stay home, but Emerson definitely made that decision a lot easier,” said Broesky, who worked extensively with Etem at SAHA. “We definitely clicked. I definitely know the message he’s trying to send the team, especially with the skill part of everything. Just because I did work with him and we mostly did skills, I have an idea of what he’s talking about and for me personally I think that’s a really good thing.”
Etem added the experience he received while coaching with SAHA prepared him for the jump to his role in the NA3HL while helping him directly grow the game of players like Broesky, Mowat and Christianson.
“From where they were at, Mason in particular with the 15 team, when I started working with him he was at about 0.25 points per game. That next year to the midget AAs he was at almost a point a game,” said Etem. “Same with Kieran, struggled to find that confidence in that bantam AAA year, but once again that next year on the 15s he was a point a game. Both of them have come a long way and they’re showing it right here and now. Tyler has been kind of going from team to team trying to find a home where he’s being pushed, he’s finding success and that player-to-coach relationship is where it needs to be and he’s finally found it.”
Mowat added having that history with someone who knows where they’re from and what they’ve already accomplished in pursuit of their goals has made the transition all but seamless. The fact Etem has the skill and experience to back it all up – with 173 games of NHL experience, and 145 more in the AHL – doesn’t hurt either.
“Just having him behind our bench and coaching us, it just brings our game to a whole other level,” said Mowat, adding the company of Christianson and Broesky goes a long way as well. “It’s awesome to have guys I’ve played hockey with for so long coming down here. All in all, it feels like a little bit of home has come with me down here to Missoula.”
On that same note, Etem says he sees the dedication required to succeed in each of his young players. When asked about the state of his team after opening the season on a pair of victories, Etem could only sing their praises.
“All the guys I’ve got are students of the game, good guys that put in the time. We’ve got guys showing up here at 4:30 a.m. working on their shot. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” said Etem. “It’s a testament to them. Everyone gets along and it’s a competitive group. I’ve never seen a team skate as much as we do – I think we’re the best-conditioned team in the league. These guys watch video nonstop and they’re just true professionals, true students of the game who are just looking to get better and push themselves.
“From a coaching standpoint, I really couldn’t be happier.”