BY BRIAN MCCORMACK (@BrianJMcCormack)
Standing in the hallway underneath the stands at CenturyLink Arena, right outside the Steelheads locker room, you can hear the back and forth banter of men talking hockey. Debates over player scouting reports, breakouts, and defensive zone systems leak out of the locker room and into the empty arena.
And the players don’t arrive for another week.
Head Coach and Director of Hockey Operations Neil Graham sits at his desk across from Gord Baldwin, his new assistant coach, both men studying a giant white board hanging on the wall. The board is the width of the room, covered from top to bottom with names, depth charts, and footnotes. Graham and Baldwin are making the final preparations for their first training camp as a coaching staff, with both men carrying a greater responsibility into next season than they had just a few months ago.
Graham was hired to be the Steelheads’ head coach on August 7th, after two full seasons as an assistant coach for former bench-boss Brad Ralph, as well as one season as a player-coach in 2012-13. Baldwin was on that 2012 Steelheads team as well, and he was hired by his former teammate on September 24th to man the other end of the bench.
At 30 years old, Graham is the youngest coach in the ECHL, as well as the youngest head coach in Steelheads history. Baldwin, 28, is the second-youngest assistant in the league. In a league where the average age of a coaching staff is roughly 40 years old, both Graham and Baldwin are ahead of the game and ready to roll with a tremendous opportunity.
“I think it’s easier to relate to the guys,” said Graham. “The players are getting younger, even in the NHL and AHL. We’re no different, and to have a young staff hopefully means we can relate well to the guys in the room. We’re going to demand excellence, we’re going to demand respect, and I know the guys will have no problem with that.”
Baldwin echoed that, noting that a younger coaching staff can gain a better feel for the grinding effects of a 72-game season on the players, or how younger players are adjusting to life in their first pro seasons.
“We’re not too far removed from playing. And as the game gets younger, the coaching style is getting younger too. You have to deal with people in different ways,” said Baldwin. “And as we’re implementing our values and systems into these players, we can understand where they’re coming from and hopefully they can relate to us a little bit better.
“As the game evolves, coaching is evolving too. I think being younger, we may have a bit of a more innovative view.”
The coaches certainly can relate to each other well. It’s not unusual for a coach to hire one of his trusted former players to join his staff when that players’ career is done, but it’s highly unusual for a coach to hire a man whom he coached and played with while both men are so young and so close in age.
“The year where I was a player-coach was a bit of a transition year from playing into coaching,” said Graham. “So I was Gord’s teammate for a half a year and then I was also his coach for a half a year. To get to work with him on both sides of the game was a unique experience that most people don’t get to do.”
It’s certainly an experience that has allowed Baldwin to know exactly what his head coach will expect, while Graham knows how his new assistant sees the ice from every angle.
The pieces of the puzzle are falling into place for the Steelheads, who open camp on October 5th. And while the names on the whiteboard in Graham’s office are likely to shift and shuffle in the coming weeks, two of the most important names are written in ink. Graham and Baldwin will get to work maintaining and strengthening a winning culture in Idaho.
“We’re building what I call a ‘family atmosphere’ with good people. We want our players to become part of this community,” said Graham. “The wins are going to come and we will get our wins, but I really want us to embrace the community as they’ve embraced us. That’s something Gord takes pride in as well.”