By Bill Foley
For Butte hockey players Kody Chamberlin and Ethan Cooney, playing on the big stage is no big deal.
The Butte High students have played in national tournaments with the Montana Thunderblades in Dallas, New York and Washington, D.C.
This weekend at the Butte Community Ice Center, however, might top all that.
That’s when Chamberlin and Cooney will take the ice as members of the Butte Cobras for a best-of-three WSHL playoff series against the Bellingham Blaze. The games will mark the first home playoff series in the short history of the Butte club.
“It’s going to be pretty exciting,” Cooney said Thursday, one day after his 18th birthday and two days before the Cobras take the playoff ice. “It’s definitely going to be a big rush. I just hope the boys can come out and get the win.”
The series opens at 7 p.m. Saturday. The puck drops at 2 p.m. for Game 2 on Sunday. If necessary, Game 3 will begin at 7 p.m. Monday.
As the playoff series approaches, the Cobras have become the talk of the town. The players, they say, can feel the buzz.
“Oh, it’s fun,” Chamberlin said.
“We’re getting a lot more recognition now that we’re doing well,” Cooney added.
Cooney is a defenseman for the Cobras, while Chamberlin, who turns 18 in a couple of months, is a utility player.
“I play pretty much anywhere coach needs me,” he said. “I rotate around.”
Both bring an edge to the Cobras, head coach Ty Smith said.
“It’s been tremendous to have two Butte kids,” Smith said. “The biggest surprising thing is how skilled and knowledgeable they were when I first came in.”
On the regular season, Cooney scored four goals and registered 19 assists while compiling 23 points. He also leads the team with 106 penalty minutes.
“He’s a goon,” Chamberlin said with a laugh.
“It’s part of the game,” Cooney said.
The junior level is the first time fights are allowed in games. Cooney said he doesn’t go around looking for fights, but he also doesn’t shy away from them.
“I don’t plan on getting all the penalties,” he said. “It just kind of happens.”
Smith is a big fan of Cooney’s toughness on the ice.
“He’s had a lot of fives,” Smith said, referring to a 5-mintue penalty for fighting. “He’s a tough kid. He’s a home-grown Butte kid. That right there brings toughness in itself.”
Chamberlin, who has registered three goals, four assists and 14 penalty minutes, hasn’t been nearly the brawler that Cooney has.
“I’ve still got a cage on so I kind of veer away from all the fights,” Chamberlin said, referring to the full face mask he has worn all season.
Players have to wear a “cage” until they are 18 or until their parents sign a waiver.
“He played in this league last year, and he got experience about how to play,” Chamberlin said of Cooney. “So he put a visor on. I’m putting one on for this weekend. Hopefully I don’t lose my teeth.”
Cooney, a senior at Butte High, is in his second, and most likely last year, playing for the Cobras. Chamberlin, a junior at Butte High, played for a lower-level team last season in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
Both are hoping to play at a higher level of junior hockey before earning a college scholarship.
“Hopefully I can move on to a higher level,” Cooney said. “The coaches are working with us.”
Both players have three years left in the junior careers.
“I hope to go to bigger and better places, but you never know what is going to happen,” Chamberlin said.
First things first, the Cobras (32-18-2) have to take care of business against the Blaze (15-36-1), a team Butte swept during three-game playoff series in Butte and Bellingham, Washington.
Those sweeps came during Butte’s torrid stretch at the end of the season. The Cobras, who endured a nine-game losing streak early on, picked up 25 wins in their last 30 games.
That streak propelled the Cobras to third place in the WSHL Northwestern Division. It also opened some eyes around town.
“The crowd has been so into it, and it’s been growing,” Smith said. “At the beginning of the year I think we were averaging around 300 fans a game. Now we’re up to about 800 to 1,100 fans per game. It’s just been blowing up.”
The Cobras have been particularly tough on their home ice during their 24-game home schedule.
“We won 16 games at home,” Chamberlin pointed out.
The atmosphere at the Community Ice Center plays a part in that success, Chamberlin said.
“It’s really loud,” he said. “It gets the boys going, for sure.”
With public address announcer Jack Hocking running the show, there is never a dull — or quiet — moment at a Cobras home game.
“Butte’s one of the best rinks for the atmosphere,” Cooney said. “Our arena is really loud with all the fans we get compared to other teams. I think we’re doing pretty well there.”
The Cobras head into the playoffs a confident bunch. They are not only eying the Blaze. Butte’s team is heading to the playoffs with dreams of hoisting the Thorne Cup.
“All the boys have the mindset that the Cup is already ours,” Cooney said. “We just have to go in and take it.”
A Cobra victory over the Blaze would send Butte to Southern Oregon, the second-place team in the conference, for the second round.
Whatever the outcome this postseason, the run could very well be the last time Chamberlin and Cooney play on the same team.
“We’ve been playing 14 years together, so we probably played about 500 games together,” Cooney said. “Hopefully we can keep playing together, but this could be the end.”
If it is their last hurrah together, Chamberlin and Cooney say this season has definitely been a very good way to go out.
“It’s pretty cool,” Cooney said. “It’s pretty big to have the first Cobras playoff series at home.”