When Brad Ralph was hired as the Steelheads' coach in June, he knew he had a lot of work ahead of him.
He also knew he would need some help, a right-hand man, if you will.
Enter Neil Graham.
Ralph coached Graham for two years when they were with Augusta of the Southern Professional Hockey League. It didn't take long for Graham to make an impression.
"My first year being a head coach, we lost our first two exhibition games, we lost our first three regular-season games and my GM had just been fired," Ralph recalled. "I was scared for my job. Game 4, Neil scored two goals in regulation and he scored the game-winner in OT. So he had a hat trick, got my first win and possibly kept my job. I've never forgotten that."
Graham, 27, came to Idaho as a player, but his role expanded immediately.
"The agreement was that he was going to play when we needed him, and when he wasn't playing he was going to help me out, help me build this program," Ralph said.
Early in the season, Idaho's roster was loaded and Graham was denied much playing time.
But he stayed busy.
"I wouldn't have been able to do all the things I wanted to do, like game prep and video, without his help," Ralph said.
As Ralph expected, however, there came a time when Graham was needed on the ice.
"I knew that once we got some call-ups and the (NHL) lockout ended and we had some injuries he could step in and give us some great minutes," Ralph said. "We were at that point, and he was starting to play really well."
Graham played in his eighth game of the season Dec. 29 at Bakersfield.
"It was the first game after Christmas," Graham said. "I was pretty excited I was having a really good game."
And then he took a nasty hit from a Bakersfield player.
"He caught me right across the face with an elbow," Graham said.
The result was a major concussion.
Graham hasn't played since suffering the injury.
"I still have some mild symptoms, but it's nice to feel better and be able to contribute," Graham said.
His contributions, and his focus, are now completely off the ice. He still collects a player's paycheck, but he can be seen during games wearing a suit and coaching players on the Steelheads bench.
"I think I can help the team most in this aspect now," Graham said. "I still love hockey, but maybe this was supposed to happen."
Graham thinks coaching may be in his future. If so, he's already learned one of the perks of the job.
"During the games now that I'm on the coaching side, you see someone score a big goal, a late goal to tie it, you get that rush like you were out there scoring," he said. "It's the same kind of feeling, and that's pretty cool. I didn't know it would be like that coaching. But you put so much time in and become so invested you want everyone to do well. It's really rewarding."
Turns out, he's not the only one being rewarded for the job he's doing.
"I'm a better coach when he's behind the bench with me," Ralph said.
Chris Langrill: 377-6424