We’re in the home stretch of the ECHL’s regular season, with just eight games separating the Idaho Steelheads from another post-season run. Every member of the locker room is united behind a single goal, a single purpose to bring a third Kelly Cup Championship to Boise. And yet, there’s another hockey playoff on the horizon for which many members of this team have a vested interest and a split allegiance.
The NCAA Division I Men’s Ice Hockey Championship tournament begins on Friday with regional play and culminates with the Frozen Four at Tampa Bay’s Amalie Arena on April 7th and 9th. The Steelheads players, particularly the 13 on the roster who played American college hockey, are paying attention.
“It’s something I always keep an eye on,” said defenseman Andrew Panzarella, playing his first pro season after graduating from the University of North Dakota last spring.
“I haven’t followed college hockey as a whole as much as I thought I would have this year, but every time North Dakota plays I’m looking at what they’ve got going on. I keep in touch with a lot of the guys so it’s good to see them doing so well.”
Five Steelheads will track their alma maters through post-season play this week. Zack Kamrass played his college hockey at UMass-Lowell, Panzarella attended North Dakota, Tommy Fallen won a National Championship with Yale in 2013, and Andrew Carroll and Joe Basaraba both played at the University of Minnesota Duluth, with Basaraba winning a National Championship in 2011.
“I keep in touch with all the guys I played with, and even the staff members,” said Fallen, admitting that he was up early on Sunday to watch the NCAA selection show and see if his Bulldogs had earned an at-large bid to the dance.
“But now that the tournament is coming up you want to get your hands off a bit and let them enjoy the moment and make it their own special thing.”
Fallen certainly had a special run in 2013, one that has ties to the current Steelheads dressing room. On the way to a title, the 15th-seeded Bulldogs, after earning the final at-large bid of the tournament, defeated Minnesota on an overtime goal by former Steelhead Jesse Root in the first round. Yale then went on to defeat Kamrass and the Riverhawks, Panzarella’s UND squad, and Quinnipiac University with former Steelhead goalie Eric Hartzell in the final.
“It was amazing. We started against Minnesota, and being from Minnesota that meant playing against 20 guys I grew up playing with all my life,” said Fallen. “It was special to knock them out, and from there on we knew we had a special opportunity.”
But does his college win give him bragging rights in the Steelheads locker room now?
“I try to keep out of it as much as possible,” Fallen laughs. “You don’t need to be making any enemies in the locker room.”
Still, there’s certainly friendly competition in the locker room, especially with Yale and UMass-Lowell lined up to face each other on Saturday in regional play.
“There’s going to be some jawing going on. Tommy’s team is playing against Zack’s in the first round,” said Panzarella. “It’s going to be something we all talk about.”
Panzarella has his own rivalry to mind, and it’s a double barreled attack. Carroll jokes that he is too old to have played college with any of the younger players in the room, but he does have an alliance with Basaraba with both having donned the UMD maroon and gold. With that comes an intense rivalry with North Dakota, and when UMD topped Panzarella’s squad in the NCHC tournament last week, Panzarella had a gift waiting in his stall.
“Andrew Carroll hung a Duluth jersey in my stall the other day to mess with me,” he said. “I told him it didn’t rattle me but I was pretty mad about it.”
“North Dakota, in the NCHC, they’re one of our rivals,” said Carroll with a smirk. “I thought it would be funny because they played that day, and Minnesota-Duluth came out on top so obviously I’ll have to do it again if they play again.”
As Basaraba phrased it, “We’re outnumbered by the rest of the guys, but AC is never afraid to voice his opinion.”
While the college days may feel far away for a rookie group that is 64 games into a pro season, and even further for more seasoned pros, those years are still fresh in the minds of the Steelheads younger players. For many of them, some of their best hockey moments came in a college setting, whether it comes with a championship trophy or not.
“In the WCHA tournament we had a huge comeback against Minnesota,” said Panzarella, referring to his team’s playoff win over the Golden Gophers in 2012. “We were down three goals and came back with six unanswered. I can’t remember coming into a locker room like that and feeling that happy.”
There is a reason that Head Coach Neil Graham, a college player himself at Mercyhurst University, placed a premium on character people and accomplished men when he recruited for this year’s team in Boise. Those players who will have an eye on the Frozen Four will also channel that energy towards the Steelheads own playoff run in the coming week.
Fallen mentioned that the motto in the Yale dressing room during their 2013 run was ‘Never a Doubt’, a team that was on a mission. A similar mindset will serve this Steelheads team well.
“The guys love it. It’s that time of the year,” said Carroll. “It’s playoff time for us too, and we’re coming down the stretch.”