On March 12, the Idaho Steelheads flew to South Dakota as one of the hottest teams in the ECHL, but they were well aware they might have to return home without playing a game.
As the Steelheads landed in Rapid City, South Dakota, around 11 a.m. for a three-game series scheduled to start against the Rapid City Rush the next day, professional leagues around the country were starting to suspend their seasons.
A few hours after landing, the ECHL followed suit. Two days later, the league canceled the remainder of its season.
“It’s an odd situation, that’s for sure,” said Steelheads coach Everett Sheen. “I don’t think a season has ever been canceled outright, so it’s unprecedented. It was a little anticlimactic because I thought we were playing some very good hockey and getting ready for playoffs.”
Idaho entered the game in second place in the Mountain Division with 11 games left in the regular season, and would have clinched a playoff appearance for the 23rd straight season. Without the playoffs being contested, Idaho’s streak sits at 22, and will become the longest active streak in North American professional sports if the NBA restarts its season and the San Antonio Spurs don’t make the playoffs.
Despite not getting a chance to play for the third Kelly Cup Championship in franchise history, there was still a lot for Idaho to celebrate this season. The Steelheads opened the season with a 5-0-2 record, with the seven-game point streak being the team’s longest season-opening streak in the ECHL era.
Marc-Olivier Roy, acquired via a trade from the Fort Wayne Komets in the offseason, spent much of the year near the top of the league in assists. He finished the season with 40, four short of league leaders Tyler Sheehy and Alex Breton, both of Allen. Goaltender Tomas Sholl led the league in wins (28) and goals-against average (2.14). He also posted five shutouts and set a franchise record with 12 career shutouts.
Rookies Brett Supinski (19 goals, 19 assists) and Anthony Nellis (15 goals, 14 assists) both had breakout seasons, as well.
But for the Steelheads, the defining moment of the shortened season may just be the final month of it. In what ended up being its final game, Idaho fell 5-4 to the South Carolina Stingray, letting up the game-winner with less than three minutes remaining in the game. But coming into that game, Idaho had won eight straight and 11 of its last 12.
It ended the season taking two games of a three-game series with South Carolina, which entered the weekend with the best record in the league.
“It definitely was a little disappointing,” Sheen said about not getting to continue. “We were coming off that eight-game win streak, which very easily could have been nine if we had got a couple bounces in that last game against South Carolina, where I thought we played terrific. So we very easily could have been riding a nine-game win streak in that moment. But it’s not in the cards, so you just move forward. Not too much use dwelling on it.”
After having the season postponed, the team was able to book players and coaches on three different flights back to Boise on March 13 before finding out the next day the season was canceled.
Usually after a season concludes, the Steelheads will have exit interviews with players to go over what worked and what didn’t over the course of the season and to gauge the likelihood of players returning the following season. But with the possibility of a quarantine looming, and the threat of the Canadian border closing, the Steelheads rushed to get all their players back home.
The Steelheads, who had 12 Canadians on their roster, were able to get everyone home before the border closed to all non-essential travel on Friday.
“Last Monday or Tuesday we got all the Canadians back across,” said Sheen, an Alberta native who is staying at his house in Boise with his wife and child. “We bumped up their exit physicals, got them in first, got them on flights and, as far as I’ve heard, everybody’s back home safe and doing well.”
Sheen said in the next week or so the team will be conducting exit interviews with players over the phone. At the beginning of the season, the Steelheads had 14 players on their training camp roster who had spent time in Idaho last year. By the end of the season, 10 of those players remained, with Keegan Kanzig on loan to the AHL’s San Diego Gulls and Ondrej Vala — who is under contract with the Dallas Stars — playing with the AHL’s Texas Stars.
Sheen said he is hopeful to once again get a large number of returning players to the team for the 2020-21 season.
“We’ll kind of get a feel for who’s coming back, who’s maybe hanging (the skates) up and what we have to work with,” Sheen said about the exit interviews. “Then we’ll assess our needs from that and move forward with our recruiting class from there.”