Granted, the game was just the fourth of the Steelheads’ 72-game schedule. A loss wouldn’t jeopardize the Steelheads’ streak of qualifying for the ECHL (formerly the East Coast Hockey League) playoffs for 22 seasons straight, a remarkable run for any team at any level. But try telling that to the roughly 4,500 hollering fans in Boise’s CenturyLink Arena who plunked down money for hockey tickets instead of whatever else they could be doing on a Saturday night. Try telling that, too, to the Steelheads themselves, 20-somethings trying to climb up the professional hockey ranks to maybe, one day, earn the ultimate golden ticket: a call-up to the National Hockey League (NHL) things looked dicey for the Idaho Steelheads after falling behind early 2-1 to the visiting Wichita Thunder.
Good thing there was plenty of hockey left to play.
The momentum swung early in the second period, when a defensive stop turned into a two-on-one for the Steelheads capped by defenseman Brady Norrish beating the goaltender for his first goal of the season, tying the game at 2-2.
The Steelheads took the lead when defenseman Jeff King lunged at a rebound, flicking the puck into the net as he fell to the ice. The crowd erupted. 3-2, Steelheads.
The score remained close, but the floodgates had fallen. Forward Will Merchant tacked on an insurance goal in the third period, and defenseman Colton Saucerman iced a 5-2 Steelheads win with an empty net score in the final minutes.
The crowd cheered the Steelheads as they disappeared down the tunnel, the kind of support the team has come to lean on, Steelheads forward A.J. White said. “The crowd here is insane,” he said. “Take our preseason game. Nobody had to come, but basically the whole rink was sold out. The fans were there for warm-ups, screaming. You get that extra buzz and tingling in your body that makes you want to play harder. Part of our success is the fans are so into it.”
The win kept the Steelheads’ record perfect at 4-0 and sent fans, including season ticket holders Russ and Connie Cash, home happy.
Russ Cash, who wore a 2002 game-worn Scott Burt Steelheads jersey, has become something of a hockey super collector. He stopped counting at 350 hockey jerseys—all game-worn—including more than 100 Steelheads jerseys. He keeps them in a downstairs room, sorted by league. Connie Cash playfully calls her husband’s habit “insidious.”
“We love it,” Russ Cash said. “You can watch hockey on TV and absolutely hate it. But being here, live, the action is so fast. We sit behind the glass. We’re in it. Once you start figuring out the game, and how each of the players has their role, you’re hooked.”
Hockey in the Desert
Starting the Idaho Steelheads professional hockey team must have seemed a little risky back in 1996.
Young kids from hockey hotbeds such as Minnesota or Michigan or basically anywhere in Canada skate early and start passing and shooting pucks to friends and family soon after. Hockey permeates the culture. Some adolescents dream of becoming Los Angeles Lakers megastar Lebron James, just like anywhere else. Plenty also dream of being Pittsburgh Penguins wunderkind Sidney Crosby.
Idaho, on the other hand, is known for sagebrush, potatoes and empty space, which was especially true back then, when the population of the five-county Boise metropolitan area was about a third of what it is today. Were there enough people to support a pro hockey team? If there were, were there enough people who even liked hockey?
The Steelheads sold out the 5,000-seat arena, then known as the Bank of America Centre, around 20 times during its inaugural season, president Eric Trapp said. Attendance fell slightly during the high water marks of the Kellen Moore era of Boise State University football, but CenturyLink has maintained an average of about 4,000 per game. The team has been successful, reaching the ECHL semifinals in six of the last nine seasons and winning the Kelly Cup in 2003 and 2007.
The team has never been bad, as evidenced by making the playoffs every year. But the season ticket holders and casual fans come regardless of the Steelheads’ win-loss record, Trapp said. They come for the experience. CenturyLink’s seating is vertical, meaning even fans in the upper deck are close to the action. The Steelheads play in bigger rinks around the league that feel dead in comparison. The crowd noise and relative intimacy of the smaller arena appeals to fans and helps the team recruit prospective Steelheads, Trapp said.
“A lot of teams play in arenas seating 12,000 to 14,000 and even with 4,000 or 5,000 fans in attendance, it feels empty,” Trapp said. “In our arena, even with a crowd of 3,500 on a Wednesday, it still has that energy.”
Emergence of hockey in Boise rekindled a flame for the sport held by Cindy Burger, who owns season tickets with her husband, J.P.
Burger grew up with hockey. Her father, Rudy Filion, played for the Seattle Totems and helped steer the team to the 1959 Western Hockey League Championship. After moving to Boise in 1988, she said she didn’t realize how much she’d missed the sport until the Steelheads brought hockey to town.
The game was a little different then. The Steelheads at that time played in the West Coast Hockey League, and many of its players were older former NHL players trying to extend their careers. Players were a little smaller, and games had a shade more finesse and a touch less physicality compared to the modern game.
Today’s Steelheads are young players trying to reach the NHL. The Steelheads are similar to a AA-level minor league baseball team, and are affiliated with the NHL’s Dallas Stars. Players are sometimes called up to the Texas Stars near Austin, which, as the American Hockey League affiliate, is one step below the NHL team. A total of 25 Steelheads have reached the NHL.
Losing players can be hard for the team, especially approaching the playoffs, the Burgers said. But part of being a Steelheads fan is rooting for the players to get their shot at the next level.
“These guys are on the doorstep of going to the show,” J.P. Burger said. “You want to see them get there.”
Two Steelheads trying to get there are a pair of longtime pros, forwards A.J. White and Joe Basaraba.
Both are in their third season with the Steelheads, and both grew up in hockey-crazy regions. From Fort Frances in Ontario, Canada, Basaraba won an NCAA championship while playing at University of Minnesota Duluth, a hockey powerhouse. He’s played six seasons in the ECHL, starting with three for the Cincinnati Cyclones, then two with the Steelheads, then one with the Greenville Swamp Rabbits before returning to the Steelheads.
Basaraba enjoyed one of his strongest seasons in Greenville last year with 18 goals and 27 assists. At 27, his odds for making it to the NHL decrease each year. He’s dedicated to the game, but he recently finished a master’s degree in international human resource management with an eye for whatever might come next.
“Once it’s not fun anymore, maybe it’s time to move on,” Basaraba said. “I still love it. This is my sixth year pro, and I feel great. I feel very fortunate to play this game and make it a career.”
White, who is also 27, was born in Dearborn, Michigan, and played at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, where he earned a degree in business management. White started his career one level higher in the American Hockey League (AHL), playing a season for the Milwaukee Admirals, then starting the season with the AHL’s Providence Bruins before moving down to the ECHL’s Atlanta Gladiators. This season marks White’s third in Boise. He’s coming off a strong 16-goal, 35-assist season.
“Everybody strives to move onto the next level,” White said. “That doesn’t always happen. You have to make the most of the opportunity, and I feel like that’s what I’ve accomplished here in Boise. The next goal for the team is to try to win the Kelly Cup.”
White said he’s grown fond of Boise. He and his girlfriend plan to stay here after the hockey season ends in the spring. Boise could be home. “I haven’t really thought about what’s next [after hockey],” he said. “I’d like to stay in it, whether it’s coaching or some kind of management. At the same time, me and my girlfriend are enjoying our experience in Boise. I don’t want to leave Idaho. It would be a tough decision when the time comes.”
See You at the Game
At 5-2, the Steelheads are off to another strong season (though a lot more of the season will be in the books by publication). If history is an indication, Steelheads fans can look forward to a playoff appearance for the 23rd straight season—a run that isn’t lost on the players.
“We always bring up before season that there’s a culture here, that we do things a certain way,” White said. “The playoff streak always comes up, but that’s down the road. Need to make our season a book, have chapters throughout to make sure we’re ready for the playoffs.”
While it’s great to cheer for a winning team, that’s only half of the point, Russ Cash said. He and his wife come for the vibe. The visceral parts of hockey—the clack of sticks against the ice, the slam of players on the boards, the 200-pound maulers skating with the grace of muscly ballerinas—doesn’t translate on a TV screen. But in a rocking CenturyLink? That’s where the Cashes want to be.
“It is a little weird that hockey took off here, but when Boise State football ends, what else is there to do?” Russ Cash said. “I’ve heard people say Boise is an events town. Well, this is an event. There’s Wi-Fi. There’s promotions. It’s not just a hockey game. The people in my section all know each other and go out for drinks after.