Success is a very tricky word.
The term “success” is colloquially referred to achieving a goal, much in the way that films like Avengers: Endgame was an overwhelming box office success. Technically, the word means just “a degree or measure of succeeding” or a “favorable or desired outcome,” according to Merriam-Webster, with the keyword being favorable.
This lends the definition to a sweeping gray area, where the views of the term are really beholden to the one casting their judgement. And that’s just the problem: success is clearly a subjective term based on what lens one looks at the end result. There is no one path to success or one level of success for an individual or an organization.
In sports, success is most often used in relation to championships. With this definition, only one of the 27 ECHL teams will have a “successful” year, which is about 3.7 percent of the population of teams. Looking at all four major professional sports leagues in North America (MLB, NBA, NFL, NHL) and their corresponding minor leagues with affiliates (excluding shortened season leagues), only 5.18 percent of teams will have a “successful” year (17 titles and 328 total teams).
For comparison, the U.S. Census estimates that 6.1 percent of the country’s population is persons under five years old out of over 327 million people. It'd be like saying only that grouping will be “successful” in a given year.
So when looking back at the 2018-19 season for the Idaho Steelheads, the idea of success is a little more complicated than just winning a championship, though the acknowledgement of falling short of their overall goal was evident.
“Ultimately, the successful season would be us being the last team standing in the ECHL,” said Head Coach Neil Graham during exit interviews. “That’s our goal, and it’s still my goal right now. It’s tough in that sense.”
“You always want to be able to consider a successful season as winning it all,” said captain A.J. White, who finished the season leading in assists and one of two skaters with over 50 points. “We definitely had a good team, arguably one of the best teams in the league. We didn’t get the result, but we still did a lot of things right and were just on the wrong end at the end of the year.”
The Steelheads may not have reached the Kelly Cup Final, but the team still performed its best in the postseason since 2013 when the team reached the Western Conference Final, even if it fell two wins short of that mark. The six postseason wins are also the most since 2013, overtaking the five-win performance of 2014 since reaching the third round.
As a whole, the Steelheads also reached the 40-win mark for the third-straight year and fourth in the last five seasons. They were only one of seven teams to reach the 40-win plateau this season, and of those teams the Steelheads are one of just three teams that have three-straight 40-win years with the Florida Everblades (five) and Toledo Walleye (five), two other historically good franchises, also hitting that mark. The Steelheads finished two points away from first place, which only would have been their third division title since 2004, and reached home-ice advantage in the first round for fourth time in five seasons.
Speaking of playoffs, the Steelheads set a new ECHL record with their 16th-straight Kelly Cup Playoff appearance, overtaking the mark set by Florida from 1999 through 2013 and moving one year shy of fourth all-time for all appearances. The organization also extended its overall postseason run to 22-straight years, sharing the active lead for consecutive playoff appearances for a North American professional team with the San Antonio Spurs (NBA). Those 22-straight years sit seventh in professional hockey (NHL, AHL, ECHL) for consecutive appearances.
However, the road to get there wasn’t paved in gold.
The Steelheads started the season with nine of their first 11 games away from CenturyLink Arena, spanning nearly one full month with only two home games. While later in the season a stretch like this isn’t as harrowing, building the foundations early in the season become more difficult and that foundation can set the tone for the season and help a franchise to an early start. Even after getting a couple home games in, the Steelheads lost 10 of their first 15 games through November 14, placing them in fifth place in the division.
“Both years I’ve been here, we’ve been slow starters. It pays to have a good start because everyone gets even better, and points are hard to come by at the end of the year.”
The turning point for the Steelheads came on November 7 in a close 3-2 win over the Tulsa Oilers to kick off a six-game homestand. Though the Steelheads would split that homestand with a 3-1-2 record, the ability to win those close games and reverse some of their early close troubles led to the team that would blossom over the next two months.
14 of the team’s first 18 games were all one-goal differentials and getting positive results in four-straight occurrences helped pave the way for that turnaround and later team success.
“We had a really big peak right in the middle of the year, and we really came together,” said goaltender Tomas Sholl, who was named to the ECHL All-Rookie Team and All-ECHL 2nd Team after leading the ECHL in save percentage. “It felt like we were winning every night. We rode that for most of the rest of the season and never really had a downturn either.”
That peak consisted of a 21-5-0 record from November 16 through January 21, vaulting from two games under .500 to 12 games above an even record, and from December 15 through the rest of the season, the Steelheads would only sit below the top-two in the division once: January 6 following a 3-1 loss in Tulsa. In that same span of sitting in at least second place, the Steelheads would spend half of their remaining games (23 out of 46 games) in first place, battling with Tulsa and Utah for the reign of the division.
Not every game was a cakewalk. On December 31, the Steelheads had to weather a hat-trick and offensive spark from Rapid City to comeback to a 6-5 win to finish 2018. On March 9, the Steelheads erased a 5-1 deficit to earn a point and force overtime and at least earn one point. Even after falling 7-1 in the opening game of the 2019 Kelly Cup Playoffs, the team went on to win four-straight games. The team never lost more than three games in-a-row during the season, and that fight back is a large characterization of this year’s team.
“We were mentally tough, relentless,” said forward Steve McParland, who earned two AHL call-ups and led the Steelheads in scoring. “We were down in some big games and came back from down to win them … We never gave up. No one on the bench ever gave up. It was the same way all season, and that was really nice to see.”
“There were a lot of times we were trailing in games, trailing in periods,” said Graham. “It’s a group that never quit, and it’s a group that always put effort first. That’s what I care the most about, so for me that’s successful.”
When it came to the playoffs, the Steelheads hit more records. For the first time, a team won four-consecutive games, all in overtime, and those four overtime meetings became one of only four times in which an ECHL playoff series saw four overtime games. Two goals in Game 5 of the Mountain Division Final recorded just 16 seconds apart is tied for the fastest two goals scored in Steelheads postseason history since 2007. Despite trailing in the same series 3-0, the Steelheads forced the series back to Tulsa and were close to becoming the third team to reverse-sweep a playoff series.
Ultimately, the Steelheads were two points short of a division title and two wins shy of a return to the Western Conference Final, but it wasn’t for a lack of effort.
“We thought this team and this group was as good as any. We thought we had a legitimate chance of going all the way this year. Unfortunately that didn’t happen. We’ll still keep our chins high and proud chests because we did accomplish a lot. It wasn’t what we wanted per se, but I’m so proud of this group not only the way they handled themselves on the ice but off the ice as well.”
“We kind of had everything on this team,” said forward Reid Petryk, who led the Steelheads in power play goals and game-winning goals. “We had toughness, skill, youth, leadership. We kind of had everything on our team, and it’s kind of tough that we couldn’t show that in the second round.”
“We played really hard in playoffs,” said Sholl. “We can’t be disappointed in our effort or in our game. It just wasn’t the results; we didn’t get the bounces, whatever it may be. I think we can be proud of the way we played and the way we battled.”
When evaluating a season for a developmental league, there are more ways to look at results than just wins, losses and playoff runs, though this is generally underscored during the course of a season. One of the main pieces is in that previous phrase: development.
The Steelheads saw growth in the opportunities for players at the next level, helping to elevate 12 ECHL contracted players to the AHL over the course of the season, which is three more than last year’s total. Of these players, most saw considerable time in their lineups, one signed multiple PTOs with the same team (Colton Saucerman – Utica), and one earned their first AHL call-up (Eric Sweetman – Grand Rapids), and two signed AHL contracts: Brady Norrish (Texas Stars) and Kale Kessy (Colorado Eagles).
The development within the Dallas Stars affiliation system continues to provide strong results from current players and alumni. For this year’s team, players like Brad McClure and Norrish averaged more points per game than some full season forwards with the Texas Stars, and McClure even recorded his first career hat-trick with Texas while playing every game of his second stint. Tony Calderone’s stint with the Steelheads midway through the season helped earn him considerable time for the rest of the regular season with Texas. Robbie Payne averaged nearly a point-per-game with the Steelheads and spring-boarded quickly back to Texas. Ondrej Vala showed the most growth of any affiliated defenseman and could be a staple with Texas next season. Even goaltender Philippe Desrosiers, who started the season with the Steelheads, earned his best career AHL numbers this year and played a career-high 23 games.
Two former Steelheads even had stints with the Dallas Stars that held clout. Goaltender Landon Bow (’16-’17) made his NHL debut with Dallas on November 21, allowing only one goal over 59 minutes through two games and earning a spot on the playoff roster. Speaking of playoff rosters, forward Justin Dowling (’12-’13) played a career-high 11 games with the Stars this year and also clocked in all 13 playoff games with two assists in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“When you’re in a developmental league, I think it’s important that you look at those things as well, and for me those are very successful,” said Graham. “Something we should be proud of as an organization. The guys in the locker room helped push that culture. Guys were excited to get the opportunity. We were excited for teammates to get an opportunity at the next level.”
Then, there’s next season. At this level, there are no multi-year deals. There’s no guarantee that even half of the same team will return next season. From this aspect, that evaluation will have to wait until at least training camp. There are, however, two things that can be focused on now that always have off-season implications, and one directly relates to the other.
The first is culture, maybe one of the most overstated sports terms but the most applicable to what is developed within the locker room. Culture is generally how a team presents themselves and the mentality in which the team operates. On-ice success doesn’t always translate to off-ice rapport, but having the off-ice cohesiveness helps translate to pulling through difficult stretches or overcoming obstacles when needed in the moment. Seeing the way the team played with each other and interacted with each other showed a group that wanted to be around each other and looked forward to that chance every day.
“The comradery we had with this group and how close of a group this was felt like a success coming to the rink every day,” said defenseman Keegan Kanzig, who posted a career-high 18 points and plus-30 rating with four goals and all 83 potential games played including playoffs. “Being able to play with this group and play with these guys. We were a good team. We played well together. We sacrificed for each other … It showed in the way we played.”
“I had a blast this year,” said forward Mitch Moroz, a second-year alternate captain and emotional leader. “It’s one of my favorite seasons I can remember playing. I’ve been hurt quite a bit in my first five years professionally, and to be able to contribute and feel part of this group meant so much to me.”
When asked to define this year's team, Moroz paused pensively for nearly 30 seconds and answered with simply:
“Brothers. All heart.”
It’s this type of chemistry and bond that isn’t always seen in professional locker rooms, and that continues to make the Steelheads a destination in the ECHL and leads into that next evaluation. Continued success, 17 sellout games and a wealth of fan support are large contributing factors from an atmospheric standpoint, but the day-to-day lives of athletes also comes into play. The hockey world is small, and a healthy, boisterous culture within a locker room can spread to other athletes, making the thought of joining an organization enticing as well as returning to the same one.
And if there are a lot of returning players from this nucleus, the potential for further strides is rooted.
“We had a good group of guys come back for this past season, and I know the guys that do want to try to return always do a little extra recruiting on guys that are ‘iffy’ on what they’re doing next year,” said White. “We’re definitely going to be doing that again this year and hopefully we have a good group of guys coming back.”
“Culture is built by the people, and our players are a big part of that,” said Graham. “That group in there is outstanding. The character we had not only from our leadership group but also up and down the roster. Guys were here to win and enjoy their time but put in the work to enjoy their time.
“I’ve love to get a lot of them back. I hope we do, I really do … There’s not a guy in there I wouldn’t take back with open arms.”
So, was it a successful season?
Every lens reading this, including the one presenting this, will ultimately be different. That question will only be determined by the individual lens that is currently viewing this season.