Two years in, Michael Richardson says his fledgling Oz Fitness Tier I Midget team is beginning to carve a niche for itself in the world of prospect-level hockey.
“With this program, I think people are starting to take notice of what we’re trying to get done,” said Richardson, the team’s second-year coach. “It’s usually a two- or three-year process to build a solid foundation, so we’re still striving.
“But we’re starting to get a little bit of recognition.”
Now Richardson hopes his team gets a little bit of recognition at home this weekend.
The Oz Fitness team, a direct affiliate of the Junior A Billings Bulls and the only U-16 Tier I Midget squad in USA Hockey’s Northern Plains district, will play its first games in Billings in two years this weekend when they host the Utah Regulators at both Rimrock Auto Arena and Centennial Ice Arena.
In all, Oz Fitness will play four games against Utah, a Tier I team from Salt Lake City.
The games at Rimrock Auto Arena are set for 5 p.m. both Friday and Saturday in advance of the Bulls games at 7:30. Oz
Fitness and Utah will play again at Centennial Arena at 7 a.m. Saturday and at 10:30 a.m. Sunday.
So far this season, Oz Fitness has traveled to tournaments in Chicago and San Jose, as well as Spokane, Wash., Blaine, Minn., and Frisco, Texas. It played the same type of schedule in its inaugural season last year.
So skating at home, Richardson said, will be a privilege.
“It’s been a long time coming,” he said. “And it’s something we’re not taking lightly. We’re really proud of being able to play here.”
Though it’s struggled to win many games this season in the North American Prospects Hockey League, the goal of the Oz Fitness team — comprised of players from around the country with 1995 and ‘96 birth years — has always been to develop talent for the Tier I or Tier II Junior A level and beyond, potentially to Division I college hockey.
And that’s no different from any team at the Midget level.
Richardson said six players from last year’s team made their way onto junior rosters this year, and that doesn’t include Billings products and current Oz players Cam Strong and Tristian Henrichs, who’ve been called up to play with the Bulls on occasion.
“That’s a pretty good stat in our opinion,” Richardson said. “And we’re hoping for the same number this year. That’s how you define your program.”
Strong and Henrichs are two of four returning players from last year’s club.
The others are San Jose native Logan Speelman and Crestwood, Ky., product Alexei Afanasyev.
Richardson and his Oz Fitness team hope to give local hockey fans something to cheer about this weekend.
“We’ve got a hard-working group that’s exciting to watch,” Richardson said. “But it’s going to be a little bit of a different experience for the fans. It’s not like the Bulls (games) where there’s a lot of hitting. A lot more skill work goes on. It’s going to be a good, high-paced weekend.
“Being a part of this level, they’re competitive hockey games. It’s not just a scrimmage where you goof off. We’re trying to teach these players to compete. And at that age, it’s a hard thing to learn. But it’s also very exciting.”
Following the Oz Fitness games, the Bulls will again play at Rimrock Auto Arena to resume their AWHL schedule. They’ll host Gillette, Wyo., Friday night and defending Tier III Junior A national champion Helena on Saturday.
In its first games at Rimrock Auto Arena last weekend, Billings defeated Great Falls 9-2 before knocking off Bozeman 6-3.