TERRY COLUMN: Turning Montana into a hockey state

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Bill Foley has a big job on his hands.

The majority owner of Whitefish Mountain Resort is starting a new venture this fall when the Vegas Golden Knights open their inaugural NHL season in the desert.

While building a successful hockey team in a place that doesn’t get snow is hard, building an audience for hockey in Montana has proven even more difficult.

Foley and the Golden Knights made a trip through Whitefish on Wednesday as part of a four-state bus tour to garner support for the team and viewership in communities that carry its TV partnership with AT&T SportsNet.

Hockey has had trouble sticking in the state, outside of a small, passionate few fans that help drive the sport.

Much of that has to do with low visibility from professional teams, with the closest U.S. teams residing several states away in Denver, Minneapolis and San Jose. Seeing the closest possible teams, in Calgary and Edmonton, requires a passport and a loyalty to a team outside of the States, a hurdle many fans have trouble leaping.

Unlike neighboring North Dakota, where college hockey success has driven investment in youth programs, there are very few local teams that can help build the sport in the state. Montana has only a handful of youth and high school-aged teams in each age group, spotted around the state in the communities that have raised enough money to build a hockey rink.

That bubble, with no high-profile teams to attach to in the state, has created a sort of hockey black hole around our borders, with interest rampant to the North and East and almost nonexistent inside the Treasure State.

Which is the purpose of sending a bus to Montana, splattered with the logo of a team far away. If the Golden Knights can build the sport of hockey in Montana, Idaho and Utah, they can build a higher floor for support when things inevitably go bad.

It’s a strategy, that while derided for many years, has paid off in other communities, most recently in the NHL’s other desert oasis.

Phoenix, stuck in a place as hot and devoid of natural ice as Las Vegas, hung around long enough to watch hockey become a sport of choice in Arizona.

After 20 years in the desert, the NHL’s hottest location provided it’s hottest prospect. Phoenix’s Auston Matthews was taken as the No. 1 overall selection in the 2016 NHL Draft and won the league’s rookie of the year last season while leading the Toronto Maple Leafs to the playoffs.

Arizona State, located in suburban Phoenix, won a collegiate national championship in 2014 and made the jump to the top level of college hockey in 2015.

Building a hockey culture in the desert can be done.

But it takes time, and most of all, investment.

The Vegas Golden Knights say they are invested in making Montana a hockey state.

Time will tell if it pays off.

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