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Quick Learning Curve for Steelheads Camp

Wednesday, September 30th
Quick Learning Curve for Steelheads Camp

The Idaho Steelheads will open training camp on Monday morning, with players going through preseason fitness testing before hitting the ice and hitting the books to get ready for the 2015-16 season. The players will learn their new systems and get their bodies into game shape before opening day against Rapid City on October 16th.

That’s 11 days for Head Coach Neil Graham to get his team together before meaningful hockey at CenturyLink Arena. Even the casual fan can tell you that that’s not a lot of time.

“We have four practices and then an exhibition, then four more practices and the season starts. That’s not a lot of time to bag-skate guys or go through a week-long fitness testing,” said Graham, who is ready to run his first training camp as a head coach. “It’s a short period of time and our job is to get guys to adjust and adapt to what we’re teaching them very quickly. I have no doubt that with the smart hockey people we’re bringing in, they’ll be able to do that.”

That learning curve will apply to everyone, including returning players such as Jefferson Dahl and Rob Linsmayer. While those players are familiar with Graham, who served as an assistant coach last season on Brad Ralph’s staff, they’ve yet to endure a training camp in which Graham held the reins. They will need to adjust their games to the particular systems that their new head coach seeks to implement into the Idaho style.

“You don’t want to be a mirror image of anyone else,” said Graham. “But we take the good from what we’ve learned from other coaches and incorporate a little bit of our own material into it. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but you need to make sure everyone is buying in and figuring things out quickly.”

Between Graham and new assistant coach Gord Baldwin, the Steelheads hockey operations staff is comprised of two people. That means the scouting staff is only comprised of two people.

There are no “blind picks” and no hunches used when Graham makes a decision on a player. Many of this year’s newest Steelheads have been evaluated in person, either on scouting trips or while competing with other teams in the ECHL. Already in the past month, Graham has scouted potential Steelheads talent at the Traverse City Prospects Tournament and at the AHL Texas Stars’ training camp.

Still other prospects have been observed with hours of film, dozens of written player reports, and through back-and-forth discussions with networks of scouts employed by Idaho’s parent affiliates, the Texas Stars and the NHL’s Dallas Stars.

But after all the homework is done and the players have arrived in Boise, coaches can only accomplish so much on a video projector and a tablet screen. The teaching element, and truly getting a feel for the players, becomes much more important once the players hit the ice at camp.

“On the ice you can see their skill, the way they skate, and try to identify their true hockey sense,” said Baldwin, a former Steelheads defenseman who traded in his stick for a whistle this summer. “That’s the kind of thing you can’t really teach. I think it’s a good opportunity to work with the young guys, especially.”

Those young players will need to get with the program quickly, as the coaching staff will need to make several cuts before settling on a final roster before October 16th. As the coaching adage goes, every player at this level looks good in shooting drills. It’s in game action where players will need to distinguish themselves. With only two preseason games, players will need to make the most of every shift to cement a spot on the team.

Even then, the Steelheads will not be a ‘finished product’ at the end of camp. No team is completely polished, meaning the players must continue to learn rapidly even during the season’s early weeks.

“I don’t think you really see your team’s true identity until you get 10 or 20 games into the season. But we need to try to get there quicker, get the players on the same page on and off the ice,” said Baldwin. “Everyone talks about a ‘winning culture’ but that can be an overused term.  It’s an underdeveloped concept at the start of any season. We need to build to get to that culture quicker.”

That season-long construction project kicks off with an 11-day sprint leading to a 72-game marathon. The players will have their hard hats on Day One.

“Once camp starts, there’s nowhere to hide, and it’s going to be competitive,” said Graham. “We have a lot of eager, hungry young guys coming in here and we’re excited to get to work.”

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Wednesday, March 20th
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