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Putting The Pieces Together
PHOTO: Lisa Jordan, Lisa's Eye View

I recently watched Napoleon Dynamite over the last month or two for the first time—I’ll save my thoughts on the film for another story. Someone recently reminded me of a moment that I can’t get out of my head that now brings two entities of that film together for relatability for the Idaho Steelheads.

Idaho, and Uncle Rico. Hear me out.

Uncle Rico may be one of the sleaziest characters in recent memory, but his entire character is built around one moment that seems to perpetuate everything that he is and does: the 1982 state championship. While he and Kip are sitting on the front porch eating steaks, he recounts, after chucking a steak at Napoleon’s head, “…if coach would’ve put me in the fourth quarter, we’d have been state champions. No doubt, no doubt in my mind. Things would have been different.”

There’s a certain familiarity to the constant re-playing of his “defining moment” throughout the film, and with the Idaho Steelheads now finished for the year due to unexpected circumstances outside of the control of hockey, that’s going to be a recurring theme for all teams across the ECHL and hockey that had their seasons cut short. It doesn’t make the feeling any better, but at least we’re not the only ones.

Feeling more like Uncle Rico (left) than Napoleon (right) at this point.

This season had a lot of hype and build-up from last season’s playoff excitement. A new but familiar coaching staff led the charge out of the summer: first-year Head Coach Everett Sheen, and Boise-favorite Scott Burt. Together, they began the season with 15 returning players from previous seasons, one of the highest retention rates for the Steelheads in the modern ECHL era. With the core intact and the feeling of unfinished business in their minds, the team was built for a long and historic season.

The earliest test came within the first month of the season: only three home games during their first 16 contests heading toward Thanksgiving. The Steelheads came out of the gates on fire, touting a seven-game point streak to begin the season with a 5-0-2 record through the end of October. The stretch was the team’s best start to a season in the ECHL era, surpassing the 2009-10 stretch of six-straight games and building the team’s reputation as a threat on the road.

Spilling into November, the Steelheads set a new best with a seven-game road point streak thanks to a pair of wins over the Utah Grizzlies. Forward Marc-Olivier Roy set an unbeatable nine-game point streak for the season that stood as the best point streak despite some stiff competition (more on that later), and he never let go of his point lead throughout the season after that. The team’s season-long eight-game road trip finished with a 3-3-2 record before returning home for the next four weeks heading toward the holidays. At that point, the Steelheads owned the fourth-best road record and had made a name for themselves as comeback kids, something they would take with them for the rest of the season.

Then, the 12-game homestand. The month heading toward the holidays was a month of ups and downs, streaks, and tests at home. This was the perfect time, since not having much practice time or many home games, for the Steelheads to find their identity at home. If you think of it this way, the Steelheads had effectively flipped their script for home and road games through that stretch, still sitting at around .500 on one side and earning over .667 on the other but just doing so with the opposite expectations.

The consistent theme you heard was simply: “We need to find a way to win at home.”

After falling 4-2 to Fort Wayne on Wednesday, Dec. 11, there was a fundamental shift in the team that came out on the ice the following game, fittingly, on Friday the 13th. The first goal followed by a three-goal stretch in less than three minutes. Back-to-back games with four goals or more scored (which had happened only once before then) to finish the last 12 games with a positive record. You could see the change in the team, and it was that momentum that led the team through the rest of the calendar year for a strong finish to 2019 and also built the foundation for the final homestand of the year.

This was one of the best teams Steelheads fans had seen in ages, and they were hot at the right time...

The Steelheads swept the Norfolk Admirals on the road, added a shootout win over Allen on December 27 to cap off a six-game win streak, and a thrilling 6-5 overtime win on New Year’s Eve to close the month with wins in seven of eight games and points in seven of nine contests since December 6. Captain A.J. White had a career-best eight-game point streak that finished in Norfolk. The foundations for a dominant penalty kill for the rest of the season also came in this time.

After another long month in January with a lot of time on the road, February came. This is how the 2019-20 season should be remembered.

Starting on January 31, the Steelheads went on an unprecedented run, one that hasn’t been seen in Boise for a very long time. The Steelheads won four of their first six games including a home sweep of Utah and a split of both Rapid City and Toledo. Then, the team sparked to an eight-game win streak, lasting nearly the entirety of the nine-game homestand. It’s the longest win streak since the franchise’s nine-game win streak back in 2014-15. It also included a 10-game win streak at home, which is the longest of its kind in recent memory.

The Steelheads were one of the best teams in the ECHL. Their 12-3-0 record and .800 win percentage since January 31 is in the top-three across the ECHL, only trailing Florida (15-2-2, .842) and Reading (14-3-1, .806). The team had only allowed more than three goals TWICE: February 16 in Toledo and March 7 vs. South Carolina. The Steelheads scored four or more goals in four of six games, netted power play goals in six of nine games, and the penalty kill only allowed eight goals in 32 games for the best mark in the ECHL since December 18.

Tomas Sholl set a franchise record for career shutouts across 23 years of hockey on February 7 and added another on February 29. Brett Supinski went on an eight-game tear, matching White’s point run. Colby McAuley became a focal scorer and fan favorite. Jonathan Charbonneau was flying in point production. There was a line brawl for the first time in years that blew up in a playoff atmosphere against a non-divisional team. Even Jefferson Dahl came back for two games.

This was one of the best teams Steelheads fans had seen in ages, and they were hot at the right time during the final 11 games before an expected return to the Kelly Cup Playoffs for the 23rd-straight season.

Then, the news came.

And that’s it. Season over.

It’s like listening to a conflicting chord progression never resolve in a piece of music. Seeing a balloon sail into the sky without knowing when it’ll pop, how high it’ll go and where it will land. Like pouring out your emotions in a text to someone you care about and never hearing back. There’s no good way to resolve something so unexpected, so unprecedented. The ending will be one to remember for all the wrong reasons in the name of public safety and health. There’s no good ending out of this, and everyone who had a stake at the claim for a title is disheartened, players and staff alike.

So, how do you summarize a season that has no true ending?

Well, let’s put together what we know.

The Steelheads finished the shortened season with a 36-18-7 record with a .648 win percentage and 79 points. That puts the Steelheads in second place in the Mountain Division for the third-straight year. Their final win percentage is the fifth best for the Steelheads in the ECHL era since 2003-04, and it’s the third time the team hit a .640 percentage or better in the last four seasons. Those are highly impressive numbers for a first-year Head Coach but someone who has lived the embodiment of the Steelheads culture now for four seasons.

With no official playoffs, the Steelheads’ postseason streak does stay intact. Just because there isn’t a February 29 in three of four years doesn’t mean that someone whose birthday falls on that day isn’t valid until every fourth year. Should the NBA continue their season or have just playoffs from here, the Steelheads will overtake the San Antonio Spurs and own the longest active playoff streak in North America at 22-straight years—though technically both teams would be tied, the Steelheads’ is still active while the Spurs’ ended. History will go on.

Speaking of playoffs, what if the season continued on through that point? Well, we could guess, based on percentages, the Steelheads would have finished with wins in seven of their final 11 games and 43 total wins. That, presuming no overtime or shootout losses, would land them with about 93 points, which ties the team’s total in the 2016-17 season, and lands them safely with home-ice advantage in the first round of the postseason against the Utah Grizzlies. After a 9-1-1 season series record against Utah head-to-head, it could be guessed that the Steelheads would move on to the Mountain Division Final for the second-straight season against Allen, and with a 4-3-2 record against Allen and outshining the Americans (9-6-0, .600) over their last 15 games it could also be guessed that the Steelheads could head to the Western Conference Final.

At that point, it’d be more than likely either Cincinnati or Toledo to represent the conference. Considering how well the Steelheads have played defensively, there’s a real shot that they could have gone to the Kelly Cup Final despite a very small sample size of games against the Central Division.  From there, we saw a potential Kelly Cup Final preview against South Carolina in the final games of the season. The Steelheads won two of three games against the best team in the ECHL, and the intensity showed that they could have taken on anyone from the Eastern Conference, whether it was potentially South Carolina, Florida, Newfoundland or Reading. There was a real feeling that this could be the year that the Kelly Cup comes home for the third time.

But we’ll never really know.

I share an office with our Multimedia Manager, Olin Nordahl (who, by the way, is the one that makes the amazing videos), and all through the year and especially in the last homestand he kept saying, “I’ve got a feeling that this is the year.” That’s the same sentiment that could be felt throughout the Steelheads Front Office and throughout the Steelheads fan base. Even talking with players and coaches when the news broke and in the ensuing days, that was also the sentiment.

I wanted to say to Olin at the end of the season, “Man, you were so right.” This would’ve gotten in his head that I could never doubt him on anything ever again (he’d have a point, not that I doubted his feeling), but this would have delivered on the entire sentiment during the off-season: unfinished business.

Right now, it hurts, but there’s still hope.

It feels odd to say right now that the mantra of “unfinished business” can continue on to next season after a tough finish to last year’s postseason run and this year’s anticlimactic ending, but it can. After two years of denial, it’s not too far-fetched to say that the mantra will go on. For two years, it’s felt like this team could go on to win the Kelly Cup. That doesn’t halt motivation; it drives people.

This is going to seem like the 1982 state championship for a while. The process for next season will begin soon it once this virus subsides. Uncle Rico never had that shot at another game to know what would happen, but in a way the Steelheads will have theirs. Next season feels like a distant future but will be around before you know it, and next year provides another chance at that elusive “state title”. The roster may look a little different, but the culture will persist. The blue and silver will skate again. Hockey will return when it usually does. The Steelheads will be here for you.

For now, the sports world is doing what’s best for the greater good, and much like Uncle Rico, we'll be left with one question:

"What if...?"

 
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