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Neil Graham heading to Traverse City: "A terrific experience"

Wednesday, September 14th
Neil Graham heading to Traverse City: "A terrific experience"

Just as Labor Day marks the unofficial end of summer, some would argue that the Traverse City Prospects Tournament is one of the indicators that hockey season is once again upon us. While the game's stars prepare for the World Cup of Hockey, eight NHL teams will send their elite prospects to Traverse City, Michigan to compete against each other, a great opportunity for team executives to evaluate the best and brightest in their talent pipelines.

And for the second straight year, Idaho Steelheads Head Coach Neil Graham is heading off to join the Dallas Stars contingency and work with their top talent.

“It’s a terrific experience for me, to be part of the coaching staff helping out on the bench during games and helping out at practices while learning from NHL and AHL coaching staffs,” said Graham, who first attended the tournament last summer shortly after being named the head coach in Idaho.  “It’s something I really enjoy and have been looking forward to this summer.”

The Stars will play in the Ted Lindsay Division in the tournament against the top prospects of the Carolina Hurricanes, the Minnesota Wild, and the New York Rangers. The Gordie Howe Division features rookie squads from the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Chicago Blackhawks, the St. Louis Blues, and the host Detroit Red Wings.

It’s a tournament for general managers and their scouting staffs to see how their organizations stack up against the rest of the NHL with an eye on the future, but with the knowledge that some of those young players can make an impact much sooner.

“If you look at the Dallas Stars, they had six guys who played in this tournament last year go on to play games in the NHL. In terms of what they get out of the tournament, it is tremendous,” said Graham. “They really get an idea for who could be NHL ready this season.”

Of course Graham benefits plenty from the tournament as well, beyond just helping the players develop. For the second-year head coach, it’s still a valuable learning experience that features a lot of very accomplished hockey teachers.

“I think it’s great to see what other guys are doing, to see how other coaches run their practices and push the tempo,” said Graham. “You have your own identity and you put your own stamp on things.  But it’s definitely fun to see how guys are doing it at the top level. And it’s great experience for me to be able to talk to guys like (Dallas Stars Head Coach) Lindy Ruff and (Texas Stars Head Coach) Derek Laxdal and pick their brains a bit.”

On the hockey operations side, the tournament is also time for Graham spent working with Stars General Manager Jim Nill and Assistant GM Scott White, along with the rest of the scouting staff. The Steelheads extended their affiliation agreement with the Dallas Stars earlier this summer for another two seasons. Graham built relationships with much of the Dallas hockey operations staff during his first year, which have been helpful in his efforts to put the finishing touches on his own roster for the 2016-17 season in Idaho.

“I think one of the things Dallas has done exceptionally well, from Jim Nill down the line, is that there are a lot of good people in this organization,” said Graham. “It’s nice catching up with some of their WHL scouts, pro scouts, and player development people. I contacted some of them throughout the year asking for reports on different guys coming out of NCAA or major junior. It’s nice to build that rapport.”

Recruiting work is never done in the ECHL, and scouting players certainly goes beyond simple conversations. The rookie tournament in Traverse City is an excellent opportunity for scouts to look around the league and see who’s ready for the game’s greatest stage, but also an opporutity for someone like Graham to take note of other talented players, from all teams, that might at some point be a fit in Idaho.

"As a coach you’re always in evaluation mode. If I were to see a player from Dallas or from a different team, it’s in my memory bank and in my notes for down the road,” said Graham.

“Even if it’s three or four years down the road, I’ll remember seeing that player in Traverse City. He may have only been 21 at the time, but I liked the way he played the game, thought through things, and made adjustments.”

Graham knows he will return to Idaho in a week’s time with new ideas and new perspective for running his bench and his locker room. At the same time, the most important part of his job in the next few days will be doing what he can to make sure the young men in Dallas Stars jerseys get all the support they need to put their best foot forward during what is a very important week for them.

With another year of experience under his belt, Graham is ready to do his part.

“For the players, obviously it’s a bit stressful for them. They’re all competing for NHL contracts and jobs. And I have the same mindset.”

“I’m going to help develop Dallas’ prospects and do what I can, whatever they ask of me. I truly enjoy working with the younger guys and offering my two cents here and there. I’m honored to be a part of it.”

The Stars kick off the tournament on Friday against Minnesota.

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