Steelheads open homestand without top scorer Colton Beck

Idaho Steelheads forward Colton Beck chases the puck with Alaska’s Ryan Walters during an April 1, 2015, game at CenturyLink Arena.
Idaho Steelheads forward Colton Beck chases the puck with Alaska’s Ryan Walters during an April 1, 2015, game at CenturyLink Arena. Idaho Statesman file

Colton Beck’s rookie season of professional hockey moved like a steam locomotive — it took him a while to get going, but once he was up to speed, nothing slowed him down.

The Idaho Steelheads forward caught fire late last season, finishing with 48 points in 65 games while earning the team’s “Unsung Hero” award.

When new coach Neil Graham re-signed Beck in the offseason, he was counting on more of the same. Beck fulfilled those expectations with 23 points in 18 games while taking on a leadership role as an alternate captain.

Fortunately for Beck — and unfortunately for the fourth-place Steelheads — his performance earned him a call-up to the Iowa Wild of the American Hockey League.

“He was arguably our best player in the playoffs (last year), and he’s obviously continued to play at a high level,” said Graham, an assistant coach on last year’s team.

With nine goals and 14 assists, Beck was the No. 2 scorer in the ECHL at the time of last week’s call-up — impressive numbers for a player whose measurables don’t jump off the page. The 5-foot-9, 190-pound British Columbia native enjoyed a solid college career at Alaska Fairbanks, where he registered 101 points and served as a senior captain.

“I love the game,” Beck said. “I’d rather be at the rink every day than anywhere else, and I think that shows. Growing up, it was pretty easy for me to play with an edge when I had people telling me I was too small to play the game that I love.”

Beck began his Steelheads career as a back-line grinder, but his speed, tenacity and nose for the puck gradually earned him more ice time. He prides himself on battling bigger defenders in front of the net.

“If I don’t play that way, bigger guys are going to try and take liberties on me, so it’s important that I pack a punch,’’ Beck said.

Added Graham: “He competes. He wants to win at all costs, and he’ll take a hit to make a play. Those are the kinds of things you can’t teach.”

With Idaho sitting eight points out of first place and struggling to win close games, losing a player of Beck’s caliber is a tough blow. It’s possible he’ll return to Idaho — last year, an AHL loan lasted all season for defenseman Charlie Dodero, while Jason Bast, James Livingston and Patrick Cullity all returned to Boise after AHL stints.

However long Beck is gone, his Idaho teammates are left with big skates to fill.

“He’s a leader in the dressing room, and he works as hard as anyone on our team in practices, in games and off the ice,’’ linemate Taylor Peters said.

NOTE: The Steelheads on Tuesday acquired defenseman Zach Yuen from the Atlanta Gladiators in exchange for defenseman Cole Martin. Yuen, 22, a fourth-round draft pick of the Winnipeg Jets in 2011, has played 127 games in the ECHL with Orlando, Wheeling and Atlanta.

Homestand begins Wednesday night

▪ Opponent: Florida Everblades (14-7, second-best record in the 28-team ECHL).

▪ When: Games start at 7:10 p.m. Wednesday, Friday, Saturday at CenturyLink Arena.

▪ Saturday promotion: 18th annual Teddy Bear Toss for Tots. After the Steelheads’ first goal, fans are encouraged to throw new, unbreakable, stuffed/plush toys onto the ice. Toys will be collected by the U.S. Marine Corps and donated to their Toys for Tots campaign.