Everyone has their reasons, but somehow the right people find their way to Boise.
With the Canadian collegiate season concluding and the NCAA Division I conference tournament schedule slowly approaching, the influx of talent straight from collegiate play has already begun. Former NHL Draft selections, free agent signings and amateur tryout contracts will be the talk of the minor professional hockey circuit across the U.S.
Every coach and organization has their pitch to receive top-end talent not only for the end of the regular season into playoffs but also for in-roads when it comes to summer signings. From the outside, the pitch from the Idaho Steelheads organization has been continuously touted across writing and multimedia pieces before, during and after each season.
So, from a player’s perspective, what makes the difference?
Zach Franko is the first collegiate signing this season for the Steelheads. After four years of Canadian university play with his last two seasons at the University of Manitoba, the Winnipeg native knew he wanted to go pro following the holidays but the question just remained where to settle. For a former WHL player and a solid collegiate career, offers were bound to come.
Choosing the Steelheads was a “no-brainer.”
“They’re successful,” said Franko following his first week with the team. “The rink is great. The fans are strong. The fact that you’re treated like an NHL team here. The [locker] room is first-class. They treat their players well, and it’s a place that I wanted to be.”
There’s an heir of familiarity for Franko, who’s now in his 5th different city in seven years starting with his final year in juniors. Making the jump isn’t an easy process, and players don’t have the opportunity to explore until things settle down both on and off the ice. However, there is one easy comparison from a living and environment standpoint.
Kelowna, B.C. is a little smaller in population compared to the Treasure Valley, but it’s another scenic stop along the Pacific side of Canada. It’s right alongside Okanagan Lake and is wedged between the Pacific Coast Ranges and the extension of the Rocky Mountains that trail into Canada, making it a valley city. Funny enough, it’s also known as one of the most rapidly growing cities in Canada.
“[Kelowna] is a lot similar to this with the mountains in the background and a little bit of snow but not too cold. I haven’t really had a chance to see much of the city, but from what I’ve seen it’s a beautiful place, and I’m fortunate to be here.”
On the ice, the first week or two is always a feeling out process from learning new systems to adjusting to the level of play. Get your feet wet, play a simpler style and stick to what got you here while letting everything else fall into place and trusting your abilities to make plays.
It only took four games for Franko to get on the board for the first time, picking up his first professional assist last Wednesday, following that up with his first professional goal in game five to open last Friday’s win against Tulsa. His game looked smoother with each shift and game, and his production was a product of that.
The little things make the difference, and for Franko, being part of a locker room of professionals and minor league veterans has helped set the example and tone for what he needs to do in order to have a lasting career in professional hockey.
“In university, you take your gear off and a lot of guys are out of there in five minutes to get to class. Here, everyone is hanging around and taking care of their bodies. You really learn to live like a pro. You see the way they eat, their cycles. It’s nice to pick their brains to see how they got here and what it takes.”
Franko wasn’t the only one to join the lineup that week.
Just one day ahead of Franko’s announced signing, Henrik Samuelsson was set to return to Boise for the second time in two years. His entry into the lineup not only bolstered the depth of the team but also gave him a second chance, in a sense.
The last time Samuelsson had adorned the Steelheads logo on his chest was Feb. 10, 2017, when he extended his point streak to four games before signing a tryout deal with the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs. Prior to joining the Steelheads at the start of the 2017-18 season, the Pittsburgh-born forward had played 161 AHL games and even three in the NHL with the Arizona Coyotes. His return to the AHL felt like a matter of when, not if, especially considering his prospect status: 27th overall pick in 2012 to then Phoenix.
That momentum from his lone season in the ECHL kicked right up for the rest of the season in Rockford, posting 12 points in 25 games and earning an AHL contract. As the 2018-19 season began and progressed, Samuelsson felt the “up-and-down” of the business.
“I had a good start there, but when I came back this year I slowly got pushed out of the lineup,” said Samuelsson. “Hockey is a business, so you’ve got to win and produce to play…It’s nice to come down, get some games in and get a lot of playing time.”
Prior to his season debut on February 13 against Rapid City, he hadn’t played in nearly one month, specifically January 18. That ice time was overdue, but that’s not to say it didn’t come without its struggles, mainly getting into game shape.
“It takes a few games to get back into game shape. Last game was, for sure, the most comfortable I’ve felt not feeling fatigued through the whole game.”
To the casual viewer, it wasn’t evident that his opening week was full of fatigue, especially his season debut. His impact was immediate, scoring the first goal of the game and following that up with the opening tally the following night, both resulting in wins. In fact, he extended his ECHL point streak to four games that week and also netted points in four of his first six contests with wins in each game he tallied.
While a lot of that has to do with skill and ability at this level, there’s a large portion that also comes with familiarity. The only team Samuelsson had played for between stints in Idaho was in Rockford, so getting back into systems wasn’t as foreign.
It also helps having a coaching staff that makes that transition seamless.
“[Coach Graham] makes you feel super comfortable when you get back. If you need anything, you can always go talk to him. He’s super approachable in that way. As long as you battle hard and have a hood compete level, the systematics will take care of themselves.”
Samuelsson skated with 10 of this year’s players in previous years with nine from last year and one additional in juniors. The friendships from the Edmonton Oil Kings have helped Samuelsson gel with Mitch Moroz and Reid Petryk, but with an additional in pros last year Moroz was the closest connection to the Steelheads while in Rockford. An inside man with years of trust helps in understanding the pulse of the locker room and continuing that familiarity.
“That makes everything more comfortable. I talked to Mitch before I came down here. He talked about how good of a group the guys were here, and he certainly hasn’t disappointed.”
Funny enough, the two even shared a moment after a goal last Friday that Moroz set up for Samuelsson. A bear hug, Moroz lifting Samuelsson, and wide, jubilant grins unable to withhold bellowing laughter.
It looked as if he never left.
“It feels like I never left.”
Have a conversation with people who have lived in Boise for a while or even those that have worked in the Steelheads Front Office and you’ll quickly realize that even those that transplant away from the city find a way back.
Charlie Dodero is one of many that felt the pull back to Boise, and his return to the area earlier in the season and, more recently, full-time into the lineup felt nothing more than just what he’s been doing for five years.
“I’ve played for this organization for a majority of my professional career. It may have taken a game or two to get my roots, but coming to the rink and putting on my great feel like I was just doing it yesterday.”
Career decisions are never easy, no matter the profession but especially from season-to-season in sports. After playing in Idaho during four different seasons including back-to-back years, he chose to head overseas for the first time and land in Sweden. Europe was never meant to be a long-term move, but after a few months across the pond, his forecast drastically changed.
“When I do something, I’m in it one hundred percent. When we made that decision to come back, there was no doubt where we were coming back to.
“Boise is my home and obviously my family’s home. That was a no-brainer. Physically getting back was a bit of a milk run—with a plane ticket booked the day before you leave, you can’t expect a direct flight from where you are to Boise. Honestly, looking back we made the right decision and are glad to be home.”
European and North American hockey styles vary drastically. While the American game, especially, is based on close quarters and physical play, European leagues use Olympic-sized ice sheets compared to the NHL-style that North American plays on. That lends the game to more speed, more focus on skill, and more time to make decisions and find the right play.
The jump from playing the North American style, which Dodero has played his entire career, over to the European style takes some adjusting, as does the subsequent transition back to the smaller ice sheet, but even the short stint in Sweden helped Dodero find a better mental strategy for dealing with opponents and space.
“I think the old saying is that you have more time than you think but not as much as you want…I do have to make quick decisions, but you may have that extra second or half second that you don’t think you have. It kind of teaches you to hold on to the puck for that extra second when you have the time but make the smarter plays when you need to.”
In the end, no matter the situation and transition on the ice for all three of these skaters, it also comes down to livability in a destination. That doesn’t always mean the area or the city itself. Generally, in this business, people make the difference at the end of the day.
In hockey, players and staff spend so much time around each other that the person you see to your left, to your right, and everywhere you look all become part of your family. Naturally, that comes with disagreements and conflicts, but in the end you’re there to support, uplift and protect your family. That’s what the players do, it’s what the staff does, and anyone that comes into the Steelheads environment can get the sense of that very quickly.
It’s all about family, and that support system within the Steelheads is a defining factor at the end of the day, whether you’re returning to the team or joining for the first time.
“With the staff here, it feels like a family. People that have been here short term and long term can attest to that. When you walk to the front office, everyone is getting lunch with each other, the staff are best friends on and off the ice. It’s just one of those organizations where, good day or bad day away from the rink, you come to the rink and automatically get a smile on your face.”