A 6-3-4 road record is not a bad way to start the season, especially considering the journey the Idaho Steelheads had to take to achieve that mark.
The Steelheads have been away from their home ice for quite some time, playing 13 of their first 16 games on the road and traveling during five of the opening six weeks of the season. In that time, they have made stops across the Mountain Division, including Allen, Wichita, Rapid City, Tulsa and Utah while only playing two road weekends in a single location.
Despite the potential struggle with travel, the Steelheads stayed competitive to earn points in 10 of their first 13 road games, and heading into the home stand, only sit one point behind the Allen Americans for the Mountain Division lead.
“We set ourselves up very well in the standings,” said Steelheads head coach Everett Sheen. “Not very often you sit back at look at the standings, but the fact that we were one point out of the division lead and two points out of the league lead is tremendous for the guys in our room.”
Compared to previous years, this was the longest road trip for the Steelheads since the beginning of their 2015-16 season, one in which they started with 14 of their first 20 games away from CenturyLink Arena.
The Steelheads closed their recent road trip with three games in three nights in three different cities, which is the third time in four weeks the team had a three-in-three set. They’re currently in the midst of their second-straight six-game, nine-day stretch even though they returned home. Despite the stretch, the Steelheads gained a point in five games during their eight-game trip, overcame two different 3-0 deficits to earn points in back-to-back October road games, and, even as recent as last weekend, scored with four seconds left to earn a point in Tulsa.
And it’s not just the miles traveled, cities visited and game situations. The Steelheads also had to juggle with physical preparation for the team as a whole while managing their rest and recovery with not a lot of off days. On a day-to-day level, that worry comes from the operations, but the players remained optimistic while keeping their focus on the current task at hand, not letting the road travel become a factor in their early start.
“Our group is a pretty resilient group,” said forward Kyle Schempp. “We really don’t use being on the road this amount of time as an excuse. Yeah, we were on the road for a long time but we took care of business.”
A seemingly endless road trip isn’t all bad, especially early in a season when a team is coming together and developing that cohesion. Whether it was team meals, hanging out as a team in the airport or even visiting local attractions like Mount Rushmore, that special bond develops, strengthens, and can translate to on-ice relationships and situations focused on trust between each other.
“Having a road trip early in the year is important,” said rookie forward Max Coatta. “If you lay it all out there for your teammates, you’re going to gain their respect and you come closer together as a team in those situations.”
“All our guys bought into our system and were dialed in from the start of the lengthy road trip,” Sheen said. “It will be nice to be home again and be able to sharpen up a few details and reset ourselves as a team heading into the next month.”
The Steelheads are now in the midst of a 12-game home stand, which began on Wednesday against Orlando. The stretch consists of four weeks meeting five different opponents with three games in four days each week. In that time, they will take on some of the league’s best teams, including: Allen, who leads the ECHL with 23 points; Rapid City, who sits second in the Mountain Division and won all three games against Idaho; and, for the first time, Fort Wayne, who sits second in the Central Division with a record of 8-5-2.
The opponents will not get any easier, but with a large number of home games coming up, the Steelheads can use this time to translate what they learned and utilize the bonds they developed from their road trip into elevating their game during their extended stay in Boise.
“I think we did what we had to do to set ourselves up in a good spot here coming home for a month,” Schempp said. “Knowing that we do have such a long home stand coming up, we have to come out ready to go and take advantage of these next 12 games on our home ice.”