There was a time in the first season of Jefferson Dahl’s career when he wasn’t sure if he had a future in pro hockey.
After four years at the University of Wisconsin, he signed with a team in Germany.
“I loved my time over there,” Dahl said. “But I was the only import on the team at the time, and I wasn’t playing the way I know I can play. … It just wasn’t working out.”
So he returned to his hometown of Eau Claire, Wis., to contemplate his next step.
Never miss a local story.
“My decision at the time was to come back, and if I got an opportunity, I’d play. But if not, I’d be done,” Dahl said.
Thankfully for the Steelheads, Dahl wasn’t done. A phone call from former coach Brad Ralph and his assistant at the time, Neil Graham, convinced Dahl to come to Idaho. Since then, he has been a constant in the lineup. The forward played his first game with Idaho on Jan. 2 of last year and has played in every game since.
Coming into Friday’s home contest against Tulsa, Dahl has suited up for 78 games in an Idaho uniform, second only to Rob Linsmayer among current players.
Graham, in his first season as head coach with Idaho, is glad that last year’s phone call was a productive one.
“He’s sort of the motor of the team,” Graham said. “When he gets going, so does everyone else.”
That’s especially true of the power play. Dahl leads the ECHL with nine power-play goals.
“He’s doing well on the power play, and he’s definitely scored some timely goals for us,” forward Kyle Jean said. “He definitely sparks our team. He’s kind of that little bulldog out there, skating really hard and working really hard.”
Dahl, who is listed at 5-foot-9, 180 pounds, said he’s become accustomed to playing against bigger opponents — and still making an impact with his speed and savvy.
“That’s always been my game a little bit, being a smaller guy,” said Dahl, who was named Wisconsin’s Mr. Hockey after his senior season in high school. “Especially in college, when you’re going up against those older guys, you learn to get in the right spot. … I think one of my assets is my quickness, being able to get out of those tight turns and creating some space.”
Speed aside, Graham enjoys watching other aspects of Dahl’s game.
“He goes into the corner with two big defensemen and he comes out with the puck,” Graham said. “He wants the puck in those situations and he’ll fight and claw and make sure he gets it. He’s like a badger.”
That’s why Graham doesn’t necessarily consider Dahl a power-play specialist, even if he is leading the league in goals in that category.
“It’s great that he’s getting those power-play goals. It’s a strength of his, but I wouldn’t say that’s his best asset,” Graham said. “He does so many other things well. Five on five, he’s very good in the D-zone and he’s very responsible, but he creates.
“Plus, he plays with a lot of heart, and that’s his biggest strength.”
But there’s no denying that as Dahl and the Steelheads’ power play heated up, so did the team. During their eight-game point streak from Dec. 11-30, Idaho scored at least one power-play goal in each game. The success rate during that span was an impressive 35 percent, and the Steelheads have gone from being the 27th-ranked power-play team in the ECHL to No. 15.
More importantly, the Steelheads (16-16-5) have compiled a 9-2-1 record since Dec. 11.
“It’s been exciting,” Dahl said. “We had that 19-day road trip, and the wins and losses didn’t go in our favor. … But now you can see that we’re starting to play well and it’s exciting to see how many home games we have ahead of us.
“It’s a fun time to be a Steelhead.”
Idaho Steelheads home for the weekend
▪ Who: vs. Tulsa Oilers
▪ When: 7:10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
▪ Where: CenturyLink Arena
▪ Radio/TV: 1350 AM/Cable One channel 17
▪ Tickets: CenturyLink box office or idahosteelheads.com
▪ Notes: This is Tulsa’s first visit to Idaho. … The Steelheads will wear special uniforms for the Jayden Deluca Foundation jersey auction that concludes Saturday night. ... After this weekend, the Steelheads play three games at Alaska (Jan. 22-24), one home game against Rapid City (Jan. 27) and three games at Atlanta (Jan. 29-31).