HELENA — Hockey is a game in which physical size is, many times, the biggest determining factor for a player’s success.
For a rare few, however, sheer power of will can overcome.
On paper, his 5-foot-7, 170-pound frame would seem to indicate that Wyatt Winfield was simply not built for the game. But what the 19-year-old lacked in size, he more than made up for in determination. Focus. Heart.
Not surprising, really, considering he first strapped on skates at age 2; was playing hockey by the time he was 4; and would, many days, spend his lunch on the ice with his father before heading back to school — at age 5.
Wyatt’s over-abundance of intangibles landed him a spot on the Helena Bighorns’ roster and the hometown kid quickly became a fan favorite.
The night before the team’s third playoff game against Missoula, however, the truck he was driving rolled over. Several hours later, he died from the injuries sustained in the crash.
Later that morning, Wyatt’s parents, Jay and Brigitte, contacted Bighorns assistant coach Mike Butters and asked to speak with the team, which elected to continue with the season. The Bighorns dedicated the remaining games to the memory of their teammate and friend.
They won that night in a blowout, 8-0.
The win pushed the team into the AWHL championship series, which opened with a pair of games against Yellowstone in Cody, Wyo. Helena won both of those contests, too, before crushing the Quake at home Friday to complete another playoff sweep.
To a man, the Bighorns committed themselves to playing with the tenacity and passion they always saw in No. 15. And they did that. But their commitment has gone well beyond the ice.
“I always knew this was a family,” Jay said. “But … it’s been more than I could have imagined. I wish they were all my true sons. But they are as close to being my sons as they can be.”
Jay and Brigitte kept tabs on the two road games over the Internet. But, as soon as the players were able, they were calling and texting Wyatt’s parents from the bus and hotel. Just to let them know how everything went.
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The messages and calls come daily, Jay said, further strengthening the bond already felt before the accident. But the support that has been given over the last two weeks has gone far beyond the Bighorns. Jay and Brigitte’s list of thanks includes Butters — also the commissioner of the AWHL — and the Helena Ice Arena, coach Scott Cunningham and the other teams in the league.
But even beyond the AWHL, the pair has seen support offered from the entire Helena community. Nearly 150 notes were left for the family on Anderson Stevenson Wilke Funeral Home’s website in the days after the accident. Messages on the arena’s reader board have been posted from as far away as California, Minnesota, Texas and Canada.
And thanks, in part, to social media, messages of support continue to pour in.
“It’s rewarding,” Jay said. “We see this and we know we raised a son that had an influence in the lives of so many people in the community. Does it ease the pain? No. Will it ever ease the pain? No. But it is rewarding knowing we raised a kid that was compassionate, generous and so willing to help.
“I firmly believe we raised him with the attitude of treating others the way he wished to be treated. And I think we’re seeing that now from the community.”
“The support has been helpful,” Brigitte added. “But I think if you see how much others loved him, you can only imagine how much we will miss him.”
In the wake of Wyatt’s death, his parents have dedicated themselves to helping other young people chase after their dreams as their son did.
To facilitate that goal, they’ve created the Wyatt Winfield ‘Be Tough’ Foundation. Money raised by the foundation will benefit youth baseball and hockey players and organizations, welding and diesel mechanics training programs and diesel “tough truck” competitions — some of the many loves Wyatt pursued.
“We want to, one, say thank you to the entire community and share with them the appreciation we have,” Jay said. “And, two, the support they’ve provided us in creating the foundation. The rink and Mike Butters have been instrumental in that.”
Brigitte, too, wants the community to know how grateful they are for its efforts and contributions. Because despite everything, the family is going after their goal with a tenacity that Wyatt would appreciate.
“We’re totally, absolutely committed,” she said, “to figuring out a way to take this tragedy and make something of value come out of it.”