In the fall of 1997, Boise was a different place. The population was creeping north of 160,000, the Boise State football team was kicking off its second season at the Division I-A level, and Amtrak’s Pioneer passenger train had just made its final stop in the Idaho capital.
Amidst the shifting landscape, minor-league hockey came to town as part of a four-team expansion in the West Coast Hockey League. The Idaho Steelheads made the playoffs that first season, establishing one of many traditions that have come to define the franchise.
This weekend, the Steelheads dropped the puck on their 20th season of professional hockey in Downtown Boise. Much has changed over two decades, with the club undergoing numerous coaching changes, uniform updates and a move to the ECHL. Through it all, Idaho has thrived, capturing two Kelly Cup championships, advancing to five league finals and earning a loyal fan following, even as other minor-league franchises have come and gone.
To this date, they’ve never missed the playoffs.
The Steelheads are celebrating their anniversary season with a special jersey patch, themed contests and the social media hashtag #SteelTheOne. As season No. 20 gets under way, we look back on 20 players, moments and memories that have defined 20 years of Idaho Steelheads hockey.
MEN OF STEEL
Idaho has retired three jersey numbers: Cal Ingraham’s No. 22, Jeremy Mylymok’s No. 4 and Marty Flichel’s No. 16.
Ingraham was the franchise’s first star, and one of the more beloved athletes in Boise sports history. He was 5-foot-5, slow and couldn’t play defense, but he had great instincts, great hands and could score goals in buckets. He piled up 175 goals and 381 points between 1998 and 2002, and he was the only WCHL player to score 50 goals in three straight years.
Mylymok was a stalwart defenseman who played six seasons in Boise (2000-06). He was a team leader who played with toughness and sound fundamentals. Including playoffs, he skated in 389 games, netting 50 goals and 143 assists. Mylymok captained the 2004 Kelly Cup squad.
Flichel was a longtime captain who played nine seasons between 2002 and 2012. Flichel retired as Idaho’s all-time leader in games played (436), assists (260), points (408) and playoff points (60). He scored 148 goals — many of them coming via his booming right-handed slap shot — and captained the 2007 Kelly Cup team.
The Steelheads have sent 23 players — 17 forwards, four goalies and two defenseman — to play for 18 NHL franchises.
The longest NHL career belongs to forward B.J. Crombeen, who played 445 games with four teams, tallying 80 points and amassing 850 penalty minutes as a physical, checking-line winger. Gritty center Zenon Konopka played a similar role, skating in 346 NHL games with six franchises.
Goalie Dan Ellis started 180 games, most notably with the Nashville Predators. He owns a career record of 87-79-18.
The only former Steelheads currently on NHL rosters are center Jay Beagle (31 goals and 65 points in 314 career games with the Washington Capitals) and forward Gemel Smith (called up to the Dallas Stars on Friday). Beagle and Crombeen won the 2007 Kelly Cup with Idaho; Ellis and Konopka were on the 2004 title team.
CenturyLink Arena has hosted its share of rock acts over the years, but the building has never rocked like it did the night the Steelheads clinched the Kelly Cup on Saturday, May 22, 2004. A crowd of 5,374 was on hand as the Steelheads capped their first season in the ECHL by hoisting the Kelly Cup.
Players made sure the rocking continued, too. A few nights later, Aerosmith came to town for a concert. Several players met the band backstage, and lead singer Steven Tyler donned a Steelheads jersey onstage. He even altered the lyrics to a song or two to include the team name.
The Steelheads clinched the 2007 Kelly Cup Finals in Dayton, Ohio. Idaho came into the playoffs as the No. 4 seed and proceeded to knock off No. 1 Las Vegas and No. 2 Alaska on its way to the Finals, where it defeated the Dayton Bombers.
Idaho didn’t have a home crowd to celebrate after this clinching victory, but that didn’t stop the team from partying into the night and drinking from the Kelly Cup.
IN THE HOCKEY HALL OF FAME
Former Boise State football player Bart Hull, the son and brother of Hall of Famers and Stanley Cup champions Bobby Hull and Brett Hull, respectively, played six games with the Steelheads between 1998 and the 1999-00 season.
The youngest Hull was a radio broadcaster for the Steelheads, who needed bodies in January 1998 after a series of injuries and roster depletions. He made his pro hockey debut Jan. 9, 1998, playing sparingly, but the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto asked for and put on display his No. 22 Steelheads jersey.
In the early days, fans were known to sneak fish into the arena and throw them onto the ice after Idaho goals. But the practice was banned by the league as a disruption to the game.
Three years ago, the Steelheads brought back the tradition in a more controlled format. At each home game, one lucky fan is chosen to throw a steelhead fish onto the ice after the first Steelheads goal.
BLOODY NHL GOALIE
Clint Malarcuk was the NHL goalie who infamously almost died on the ice after an opponent’s skate sliced his jugular vein while playing for the Buffalo Sabres in 1989.
He became the Steelheads’ second head coach June 1998.
Malarchuk didn’t have a winning record or a playoff win in two seasons in Boise, and was ultimately replaced by the successful John Olver era. But Malarchuk left a trail of inspiration, often talking about mental health issues, alcoholism and suicide attempts that plagued his personal life.
In 2014, Malarchuk released a best-selling book, “The Crazy Game,’’ which he supports with public speaking and motivational appearances.
HERE COMES THE ROOSTER
Feisty forward Lance Galbraith, also known as the Rooster, was a fan favorite during his four seasons. Galbraith was a gifted scorer, an expert instigator and a stat-sheet stuffer who racked up 83 goals, 127 assists and 1,071 penalty minutes in 229 regular-season games.
But it was Galbraith’s clutch postseason play that forever endeared him to fans. He played for both Kelly Cup teams, joined only by Darrell Hay and Scott Burt. And Galbraith was vital to both championships, scoring 13 points in the 2004 playoffs and exploding for 27 during the 2007 title run.
Above all else, the Rooster was a performer on the ice. And the bigger the stage, the better he played.
MAKING PRIME TIME
ECHL hockey doesn’t often appear on ESPN, but on two occasions, the Steelheads have been featured on SportsCenter’s “Top Plays.”
The first came Dec. 23, 2011, when forward Kael Mouillierat made the No. 3 highlight by scoring a lacrosse-style goal from behind the net, lifting the puck with the blade of his stick and tucking it under the crossbar.
The Steelheads made SportsCenter again Jan. 4, 2013, when rookie forward Austin Smith notched the No. 2 highlight with his backhanded spin-o-rama goal versus Bakersfield. It was his second no-look, spinning goal of the night. “He did it again!” cried then-radio man Will Hoenike. “Holy cats!”
LONGEST GAME IN ECHL HISTORY
The Steelheads suited up Monday, April 28, 2014, to take on the Colorado Eagles in the Western Conference semifinals. The game ended Tuesday — after 137 minutes and 18 seconds of play.
Forward David deKastrozza tapped home a pass from Gaelan Patterson at the 17:18 mark of the fourth overtime to put a merciful end to the longest game in the history of the ECHL.
Colorado goalie Marc Cheverie and Idaho netminder Josh Robinson combined to face a record 151 shots.
A TALE OF TWO MASCOTS
The Steelheads have had two mascots during their two-decade run: Bonk and Blue.
Bonk was a hockey player dressed in an oversized goalie helmet and huge sneakers that boomed loudly when he stomped them against the bleachers to fire up the crowd. Bonk was retired at the end of the 2004-05 season.
The current mascot, Blue, is a friendly bear dressed in fishing gear. He was introduced for the 2006-07 season as part of a franchise rebrand. Blue has admirably filled Bonk’s skates as a popular hit with fans.
EVOLUTION OF THE LOGO
The Steelheads are named after the wild, ocean-run rainbow trout that swim in Idaho’s rivers. But in the early years, the team’s logo was more literal, depicting a puck bouncing off a metal goalie helmet.
In 2006 — along with the team’s rebranding and mascot switch from Bonk to Blue — Idaho launched a new forest-and-mountain-themed logo. And for the first time, a steelhead fish was incorporated as an alternate logo.
In 2011, after the Victoria Salmon Kings left the ECHL, the Steelheads made the fish logo their primary mark.
ON THE MOVE
Idaho played its first six seasons in the West Coast Hockey League, twice advancing to the league finals. But in 2003, the league folded, with the surviving teams joining the ECHL (formerly the East Coast Hockey League).
The Steelheads were in favor of the move, and the ECHL has proven to be a good home. Idaho capped its debut season with a Kelly Cup championship, and league membership currently stands at 27 teams (the WCHL never had more than nine). Idaho and the rival Alaska Aces are the only former WCHL teams still competing in the ECHL. The two franchises have combined to win five Kelly Cup titles since 2004.
The first hockey game in the then-Bank of America Centre was an NHL exhibition between the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks. But the preseason contest Sept. 24, 1997, with a crowd of 4,629, was delayed for nearly 1½ hours because of a soft and messy ice surface. The Steelheads played their first game less than a month later.
In 2012, the Dallas Stars were scheduled to come to Boise to hold their training camp and play an exhibition game. Alas, the NHL locked out its players and the Stars never got their chance to shine in Idaho.
The Stanley Cup visited center ice March 14, 2003.
DERLAGO, THE SCORING MACHINE
Mark Derlago didn’t have the swiftest of feet, but, oh, those hands. His gift for scoring propelled him into Idaho’s record book.
In 2010, Derlago set the franchise mark for most goals in an ECHL season with 42.
One season later, he broke his own record in style: A hat trick on March 30, 2011, gave him 43 goals. He finished that season with 45 goals — including a four-goal night March 5.
CAL’S COOL HAT TRICK
Ingraham didn’t take long to make history Jan. 6, 1999. That night he scored three goals in 1 minute, 15 seconds, still the fastest hat trick in franchise history.
A little more than a year later, Ingraham had another memorable night as he scored five goals Jan. 29, 2000. A man of few words, Ingraham summed up the achievement succinctly: “Never had five.’’
DECADE OF DOMINANCE
The era from 2000 to 2010 was a golden age for the Steelheads. It began with the coaching hire of Olver in 2000 and ended with coach Derek Laxdal leaving the team after the 2010 season. During that time, Idaho won 445 regular-season games, two regular-season titles, five division championships, five conference championships and two Kelly Cups.
The ECHL is the third-highest level of pro hockey in North America, behind the NHL and American Hockey League.
Since 2005-06, the Steelheads have been affiliated with the NHL’s Dallas Stars. Players often shuffle back and forth between the leagues, with Dallas assigning draftees to all three levels. To date, 10-of-23 former Steelheads to play in the NHL have suited up for the Stars.
NATIONAL ANTHEM: ONE MAN, ONE VOICE
Keith Tackman of Boise has been singing the national anthem before Steelheads games since the franchise’s opening weekend in 1997. He doesn’t do them all, but he’s done enough to become a downtown fixture.
Tackman sang at the home opener Friday to help celebrate the Steelheads’ 20th anniversary.
▪ Watch a video of Tackman singing the national anthem Friday, and hear his thoughts on how the song and sports have created controversy since Colin Kaepernick started taking a knee. IdahoStatesman.com
STILL GOING STRONG
Idaho’s playoff streak stands at 19 seasons and counting. Players — including visitors — always speak highly of playing in Boise. So what’s the secret sauce? Having a stable home building, supportive fans and on-ice talent helps, but current head coach Neil Graham says the success stems from a top-down organizational philosophy.
“Everything about this organization is first class,” Graham said. “Our ownership group emphasizes doing things the right way and taking care of our people. We want to build a winning hockey team, but we’re also looking for high-character guys who will represent our community well. That’s what the Steelheads are about, and this franchise has always done it that way.”