Petroleum engineering junior Riley Graves loves the competitive nature of hockey.
“I see hockey as almost like a battlefield, because you are all fighting for the one puck,” Graves said. “We do 45-second to one-minute shifts, and it’s fast, fast, fast.”
At Montana Technological University, the melee for the puck stretches back decades. Archived copies of the Spokesman-Review from winter 1937 tell of spirited matches against the University of Washington Huskies and Gonzaga Bulldogs. The Oredigger team was so good then that they were in the running for the Pacific Coast college and independent titles. The roster included star Canadian players who had played in junior leagues, and results of games in Butte were printed in newspapers in Alberta.
But the team’s popularity faded.
“This sport, largely enjoyed and played a few years back, has rapidly dwindled in recent years,” an editorial in the student newspaper, The Amplifier, noted in October 1956. “Being the only school in the state with a hockey team, we ought to try to keep this sport alive here.”
In recent years, Montana Tech hockey has gone through a similar cycle of boom and bust.
“About five years ago, our team was really good,” Graves said.
The latest iteration of Digger Hockey Club was formed in the 2011. In 2013, the team joined the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) Division 2, in the newly minted Mountain West Collegiate Hockey League. Tech placed 2nd in the league in their inaugural season.
In 2013-2014, the Montana Tech Diggers were ranked the #1 hockey team by The Hockey News. It put the team on the radar of the U.S. club hockey community. Over the next few seasons, the accolades piled up. Conrad Smith toured Europe with the Select team in 2013, and Douglas Abbott Jr. did the same in 2015. In the 2014 and 2015 season, seven players were selected to represent the Mountain West division at the National All-Star Challenge in West Chester, Pennsylvania – making Montana Tech the highest represented school on the team. In 2017, the club sent two players to the tournament.
The last time Montana Tech had a hockey team was in the Fall of 2019. That year, two team members, Connor Froc and Robin Bagley were selected to compete at the American Collegiate Hockey Association Division II National All-Star Tournament.
“COVID hit, and our Canadians ended up going home,” Graves said. “It officially died.”
Materials Science Ph.D. candidate Dave Rathgeber is one of the Canadians who stacked the team’s roster. He’s been at Montana Tech since 2013, when he transferred from the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology into the petroleum engineering program.
“I’m Canadian, and we grow up with skates as our first set of shoes,” Rathgeber said. “I’ve always enjoyed the family aspect and the competitive nature you get with your team.”
Rathgeber could have gone to Texas or Wyoming for graduate school, but he stayed in Butte, partly because of hockey.
“It put Montana Tech more on the map. We were a competitive team against anyone we played, whether it be California, Utah, Colorado, all across the western states,” Rathgeber said.
Rathgeber is working with Graves and other teammates to help bring the team back to campus.
Graves is the president of the hockey club. The club has 20 members, just short of a full bench of 22 players.
“By the end of the year we are hoping to have a full roster and start playing in tournaments,” Graves said.
Graves hails from Kenai, Alaska, and many of his fellow players also come from more northern climes, where kids start playing hockey at an early age. But lack of experience should not deter those interested from coming out and learning the game.
“We have a few players right now who have never skated before,” Graves said. “Seeing people get into it and have fun is nice.”
The team practices once a week at 9:15 p.m. on Wednesdays for about three hours. The Orediggers are working on getting other Montana university teams to face off against them in exhibition games.
“We’re still trying to get our feet on the ground,” Graves said. “The Butte community is very much excited to see us come back. We’re still willing to take players right now, if you have a passion and are willing to commit. The biggest thing we are looking for is commitment. If you have the want, drive, and commit to play, join us. If you need gear, we rent gear.”
For more information or to sign up, contact Graves at firstname.lastname@example.org
The cost of renting ice, gear, and eventually traveling is significant. Players pay $300 per season to subsidize the club.
Montana Tech's student government, the Associated Students of Montana Tech, recently agreed to give the club $500 if it could raise $500. To contribute, click here.