The summer officially came to an end on Monday morning in Boise, as 21 players in Steelheads practice jerseys took to the ice at CenturyLink Arena for the first day of training camp. The Steelheads will have 11 days to work before Opening Night of their 21st season, a brief window for Head Coach Neil Graham and Assistant Coach Everett Sheen to mold their new squad into a game-ready force.
That task will be made easier by eight players who have been here before, plenty familiar with the expectations that hockey fans in the Treasure Valley have for this team, and plenty familiar with what must be done in the coming days to be ready for October 13th.
Forwards Will Merchant, Connor Chatham , and Captain Jefferson Dahl, along with defensemen Corbin Baldwin, Joe Faust, Charlie Dodero, and goaltender Branden Komm, are all back for another training camp with the Steelheads. Aaron Harstad, who came to the Steelheads via trade back in February, is attending his first Idaho camp but is plenty familiar with the demands of the staff after being part of last year’s playoff run.
These experienced players will be looked to for leadership in the early stages of this season. But for everyone at the rink on Monday, it was good to be back on the ice and preparing for another 72-game grind.
“You get through the summer and everyone enjoys the time off. But once you get to the end of that, you are training and getting on the ice more,” said Faust, back for his second season with the Steelheads. “You just want to get with your team and work towards a goal with your teammates. It’s fun to get back and set the tone.”
Players coming back remember how last season ended, with a first-round playoff exit at the hands of the eventual Kelly Cup Champion Colorado Eagles. That defeat stayed with some of the players into the summer, and while it was disappointing in the off-season, it can serve as fuel in October.
“We had a good team last year and we had a shot to contend, but that’s not the way it worked out in the first round,” said Dahl, who will wear the ‘C’ for the second straight season. “We were disappointed in that result. But it’s exciting to have this many guys on the team back who want to keep pushing the pace and who know what to expect in the West.”
There are also 13 players in camp who did not experience last year’s 43-win season and who will be doing as much learning this week as they will be physically preparing. Players will also be meeting new teammates.
The getting-to-know-you phase of training camp is important, but luckily the hockey world is a small one.
“It’ll take some time but there are a few connections. Guys have played together in the past or played against each other growing up. There aren’t many completely new faces,” said Faust. “We all had dinner last night and that was good. A few guys were at (Texas Stars) camp together and got to know each other there, and those of us in Boise early got to break the ice here.”
“Today was another good step and as we spend more time together in the coming weeks, I’m sure we’ll get closer and have fun doing it.”
It’s an even easier transition with the kind of roster Graham and Sheen try to build in the summer, usually stacked with players who served as captains and assistant captains on prior teams.
“Every year I’ve been here, that’s been something our coaches have prided themselves on. It’s having a good team in the locker room to start, and then talent and winning will take care of itself,” said Dahl. “It seems like we have a veteran group with a lot of leaders from other teams, and it’s a focused group even after Day 1.”
The first practice featured lots of skating and flow, allowing players to get their legs moving and find a rhythm. But the coaches also got the players engaged in small-ice battle drills right away.
“There’s definitely a conditioning aspect that comes with being in a competitive situation. It’s tough to create that in summer hockey because it’s more laid back and people don’t want to get hurt,” said Faust. “I think the biggest thing we need to get back is that, and we started that by playing some small area games and playing with pace and trying to execute.”
With good pace and an enthusiastic crew, hockey season is off and running again. For those returning to familiar territory, they hope to pick up where they left off with last season’s winning culture.
“It felt good out there,” said Dahl. “Just to have everyone back under one roof and to get to know some of the new guys, everyone was excited.”
“We had a great first day.”