Brian Murphy: Steelheads thriving under first-year coach

bmurphy@idahostatesman.comMay 5, 2013 

Idaho coach Brad Ralph, top center, had to retool his roster again and again, but the Steelheads offense continued to produce. Idaho was the highest-scoring team in the ECHL during the regular season.

KATHERINE JONES — kjones@idahostatesman.com

The Idaho Steelheads, a proud hockey franchise with a history of success, needed a fresh start after two sub-par seasons.

In first-year coach Brad Ralph, the franchise found just the man to turn things around.

"He came with a plan of how he was going to have success. That's what stood out," said Eric Trapp, the Steelheads president and the one who made the final call on Ralph's hiring. "He had a direct plan of how he was going to get us to where we need to be."

Ralph's plan - or, more precisely, his plans - have worked better than anyone could have predicted.

Idaho hosts Stockton in Game 2 of the ECHL Western Conference Finals on Sunday night, seeking their fourth league finals appearance in 10 seasons. Idaho trails 1-0 in the series.

Following the franchise's worst two seasons since joining the ECHL in 2003, both under former coach Hardy Sauter, the Steelheads are back.

"I knew coming in that they had a couple down years and that things needed to be changed," said Ralph, who played one game in the NHL. "Just the attitude and atmosphere, a lot of negative connotations in regards to the players and what went on here. It doesn't take much. A couple tweaks here and there. It was a fresh start."

Coaching in the ECHL - the NHL's "AA" league - is one of the toughest assignments in the sport. Without the resources available at other levels, coaches must recruit players, manage a salary cap, deal with the organization's business side and, oh yeah, coach hockey.

Ralph, who coached two successful seasons with Augusta (Georgia) of the Southern Professional Hockey League, had a plan for all of it, including how best to manage the personnel crisis created by the NHL lockout and its eventual settlement.

"He had to recruit two or three teams throughout the year," Trapp said.

Said Ralph: "We're constantly creating a list and a gameplan for when our players get called up, so it's really been a pretty easy transition."

Despite the roster turnover, the Steelheads never went more than two games without collecting a point in the standings. Idaho had just one three-game losing streak all year - and it included a point-producing shootout loss.

Idaho's 45 wins and 97 points are the second-most in their ECHL history, trailing only the 2010 team that lost in the finals (48, 103).

Like Derek Laxdal, the coach of the 2010 team and the 2007 Kelly Cup-winning team, Ralph broke the arduous 72-game regular season into chunks, setting goals for his team along the way. When the Steelheads met those mini-goals, they went go-karting, played paintball or went out to dinner.

"It was rewarding, and the guys had fun with the little rewards we had for meeting the goals," said defenseman Matt Case, in his third season with the Steelheads.

There were other milestones - for victories, power-play efficiency. "Lofty goals," Trapp said.

Ralph sought other ways to motivate players, looking at quotes or videos. He looks everywhere for an edge, including the players themselves.

"As much as we listen to him, he wants to learn from us," Case said. "Things we might see in the game that he might not see. He's very open to what we might say."

Idaho rewarded Ralph with a contract extension in the middle of the season, extending his deal through the 2014-15 season.

"I believe in the things I implement and I believe in the players we have coming in," Ralph said. "You just got to be confident and believe in what you're doing. Through the course of the year, you're going to win games and lose games, but as long as you believe in the players and care about them and try and help them move up, it's all you can do. You ask for their very best and, in turn, we give them our very best."

That plan has moved the Steelheads to within eight victories of another Cup.

More importantly, it has put the entire franchise back where it belongs.

A man with a plan and a fresh start. Sometimes it doesn't take much.

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