just three seasons in the Western States Hockey League, Head Coach John Olver
has already positioned his Idaho Jr. Steelheads as one of the league's elite.
entering the league in 2009, only the Fresno Monsters have a better overall
record during the regular season but nobody has come close to the success that
Jr. Steelheads have had in that span come playoff time.
year, the Steelies came into the season as defending Thorne Cup Champions and
despite being marked men all season long, still found a way ton continue their
spending their first two seasons in the league as part of the Western Division,
the Jr. Steelheads played the 2011-2012 season in the new Mountain Division,
with the Boulder Bison and three teams competing in their inaugural season; the
Ogden Mustangs, Park City Moose and Cheyenne Stampede.
began the season by winning their first seven games in convincing fashion,
including a 38-7 lambasting of the Moose over four games.
late October, Idaho made the lengthy trip to Fresno to take on the rival
Monsters for three games that were played as if it were March.
struggled with the physicality of the Monsters and lost their only series of
the season, as Fresno took two of the three tightly played contests.
their loss in the middle game in Fresno on October 29, the Jr. Steelheads went
on to pick up at least one point in their next 37 consecutive regular season
game; a league record.
that same streak, they avenged an overtime loss in El Paso on November 25 and
set another league record by winning 27-straight regular season games.
wins didn't come over bottom-feeders either, as Idaho was convincing in their
victories at the All-League Showcase over Northern Pacific League powers Southern
Oregon and Seattle.
also swept series from the Boulder Bison, Dallas Ice Jets and Valencia Flyers
during the streak. In fact, the Jr. Steelheads had one weekend against New
Mexico in which they did not give up a single goal over three games.
was a team in only their third season in the league, with every team around the
league bringing their "A Game" to play them and they still managed to pick up
at least one point in their last 37 games of the regular season and did not lose
a single regular season contest from November 26 until the regular season
concluded on March 3.
I almost forgot, they set yet another league record by going undefeated at home
during the regular season, a whopping 21-0-0 inside the friendly confines of
Manchester Ice and Events Centre in the resort town of McCall, Idaho.
finished up the season with an overall record of 42-2-2, which, believe it or
not, was one point short of the Fresno Monsters.
Fresno being a smidgen better during the regular season, Idaho went into the
playoffs as the odds-on favorite to walk away with their second consecutive
Thorne Cup Title.
the opening round, the Ogden Mustangs got to make the trip to McCall and were
quickly dispatched in two games.
came to town the next weekend for a series that would decide the Mountain
Division Champion and wound up giving Idaho their "toughest series in team
history" as Olver put it to me.
squeaked out a win in the opening game, despite trailing 2-0 halfway through
the third period.
Ben Hanus, Sean Van Eysden and Matt
Sanford each scored a late goal and helped move Idaho's win streak to 30.
next night Boulder burst out of the gate quickly and again took a 2-0 lead,
before once again letting Idaho back into the game.
Justin Videen, Vance Bridgman and Sanford each tallied third period goals for the
Steelies and momentarily gave them the lead, until Boulder's Dylan Meier sent
the game into overtime with just 18 seconds left before an Idaho series sweep.
was solved in the first overtime period but in the second, the league's leading
scorer during the regular season, Chris Guidotti, put one home to break the
streak and send the series to a decisive third game.
game three, it was Idaho who jumped out to the early lead and despite a late
comeback by Boulder, was able to hold on for the 4-2 victory and Mountain
commended both the Boulder coaching staff and their players for what was a
fantastic series and was happy that his team got to face some adversity, prior
to the Thorne Cup Finals in El Paso, Texas.
had two weeks to rest-up for the round-robin tournament and were more than
ready to go when the puck dropped to open the tournament, where they faced the
Fresno Monsters once again.
was a tight-checking affair but in the end, Idaho and Olver's ability roll four
lines the entire 60 minutes was just too much for Fresno, as the Steelies took
the 3-1 victory to open up the tournament.
next night, Idaho got to dance with the tournament host and perennial power El
Paso Rhinos, who, along with their legendarily rowdy fans, stepped up their
intensity level for defending champs.
jumped out to a 4-0 first period lead in that game but continually gave El Paso
chances to creep back in with chances on the power play.
two teams put on a show, going back and forth all night, in the kind of game
that fans love and coaches despise.
total, Idaho was short-handed an astounding 17 times on the night and allowed
four power play goals, letting the Rhinos back in numerous times.
the end, 13 Idaho skaters recorded at least one point and the Jr. Steelheads
escaped with a 9-6 win.
into their third and final game of round-robin play, Idaho already knew they'd
be playing for the title game the next night, as they and their opponent, the
Dallas Ice Jets, both were undefeated through two contests, while El Paso and
Fresno were both winless.
game provided an interesting tune-up for each squad, who are eerily similar to each
another in terms of depth and world-class coaching.
that game, Idaho tallied three first period goals and behind solid goaltending
from Jordyn Kaufer were able to
hold on for the 3-2 victory, going undefeated through the round-robin stage.
next day, in the blistering heat of the desert, the Jr. Steelheads and Ice Jets
revved it up one final time and they didn't fail to disappoint.
came out hard and fast and took a one-goal lead twice in the opening frame,
only to twice be answered by goals from Idaho forward Stefan Brucato, who led the Steelies in regular season scoring.
the second period, Dallas scored three time and at one point held the only
two-goal lead of the game. Brucato matched the Ice Jets' output by himself
however, scoring three times in the second period alone and sending both teams
into the locker room knotted at five after 40 minutes of play.
the third period, most likely due to a tongue lashing from each coaching staff,
the two teams tightened up defensively and neither was able to score a single
goal, as the title game was to be decided in overtime.
1:53 into extra time, the Ice Jets were called for an obvious hooking penalty,
sending the Jr. Steelheads notorious power play to work.
24 seconds into the man-advantage, Brucato finished up his video game-esque day
by notching his sixth goal, which he re-directed between his own legs, sending
the Jr. Steelheads bench onto the ice and making them back-to-back Thorne Cup
performance earned him the Thorne Cup Finals MVP, as well as praise from his
coach, who called it, "the most amazing performance I have seen in my 32 years
couldn't have scripted a better ending to one of the most dominant seasons in
WSHL and even junior hockey history.
success the Jr. Steelheads have had in their three years in the league has not
come by luck.
a reason Olver has coached NCAA Division I hockey and was also a general
manager in the American Hockey League.
recruits harder than anyone in the league and is constantly looking to make his
team better. He's one of the great hockey minds and breaks the game down into an
exact science of movement and flow.
team's breakouts are crisps, the re-groups are perfectly timed, the power play
is lethal and the penalty kill is stifling; it's like an army.
is also quick to point out that playing in McCall has it's advantages, as the
resort town is located about a two hour drive from Boise, at an altitude of
above 5,000 feet.
crowds come out in numbers and are very loud. The ice is the fastest in the
league, which benefits the already speedy Jr. Steelheads.
all of the aforementioned advantages and you have a recipe not only for wins
but domination and that's exactly what Olver and Company have done.
Players Moving Up:
all good teams do, Idaho moves a ton of players on to college hockey. The
players from last year's club moving on to Division III are as follows:
- The two most recent captains in team history, defenseman
Greg Chapman (who played last year
in the NAHL) and forward Justin Videen,
will play for St. Mary's University in the fall. Joining them in Winona,
Minnesota is forward Matt Sanford,
who played parts of two seasons in Idaho
- Forward Tyler
Aurrichio will head east to play for Becker College in Massachusetts
- Forward Vance
Bridgman will be a Kangaroo at SUNY Canton
- Defenseman Connor
Tedstrom will head to St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, where
he'll play against his former teammates heading to St. Mary's
- Forward Sean
Van Eysden will play at the Milwaukee School of Engineering
on to play ACHA Club hockey next year are the following:
Benton, who will stay in state and suit-up for Boise State University
Smith, who will play on the club squad at Denver University
brothers, Dylan and Austin, who will stay together and play
at Iowa State University
playing hockey but moving on to the Tier II North American Hockey League are
defenseman Kyle Kruenegel, who will
play for the Aberdeen Wings and goaltender Jordyn
Kaufer, who has singed with the Wenatchee Wild.
north of the border is forward Ben Hanus,
who will play in the Tier II Ontario Junior Hockey League for the LaSalle
ton of guys have moved on but Olver reeled in a big one, as big-game Brucato
will return to Idaho in the fall. I could say a lot here but I'll let his 61
regular season points and six goals in the Thorne Cup Final do the talking.
coming back for his third season with the team is Czech forward Ivo Crhak. In his three seasons with
Idaho, he's played anywhere from the first to the third line, where he does
anything asked of him.
skates hard, plays the body and chips in a good amount of offense. He's also
above average in the fisticuff department.
"banger" returning to the team is "Mad" Max
Veatch, who stands a generous 5'8" 180 pounds but will run through a wall
to get to the puck. He isn't known for his scoring touch but provides an
element of toughness that every team needs.
Tyler Kruenegel has also signed on
to return for his third season in Idaho. The big forward is a solid leader, who
wore a letter for Olver last season and averaged nearly a point per game in the
playoffs. He was expected to provide a little more offense during the regular season
but with a rash of late-season acquisitions, his role was changed and he took
it in stride.
did not elect to talk about any new faces coming in, though he did tell me that
he has a "good mix" of players that will fill a variety of roles.
and scoring is never a problem in Idaho and this season should be no exception.
Jake Webber was picked up out of the
NAHL just after the holiday break by Idaho and played a ton of minutes every
night down the stretch.
not very big but he's an exceptional skater who sees the ice well, makes good
decisions and is the Kellen Moore (I was going to go with Peyton Manning but I
decided to throw in a Boise reference) of Olver's power play.
Kevin Lassen also returns to the team
and should see more ice time in the fall, after providing some defensive depth
no new players that Olver wanted to reference but there is no reason to believe
he won't have yet another solid blue line this season.
Kaufer, who led the league in nearly every goaltending category, while also not
losing a single game in the regular season, has moved up a level, while his
backup, Josh Benton, has moved on to college.
to the team is Blake Mendenhall, who
played for the Jr. Steelheads during the 2010-2011 season, before starting last
year in the NAHL with his hometown Alaska Avalanche.
obviously has the skill, having had a couple of stints in the NAHL and will be
relied upon to pick up where Kaufer left off last season.
no new faces to speak of so the backup(s) remain a mystery, for now.
will also be playing in their third division in four seasons, when play starts
in September. They competed in the Western Division their first two years in
the league, before heading to the Mountain last season. They'll now call the brand-new
Northwest Division home.
the Steelies are the former NORPAC powers, the Southern Oregon Spartans and
Seattle Totems, both of whom Idaho beat-up on last season at the Showcase.
two Utah teams also made the move with Idaho; the Ogden Mustangs and Salt Lake
along with many others believe that the Northwest could be the toughest
division in the entire WSHL.
sang the praises of the programs moving from the NORPAC and truly feels that
Ogden could contend for the division title as soon as this season. He also
feels that the Moose will pick up their play.
if their divisional schedule isn't tough enough, Idaho will also host El Paso
and Boulder, two teams that have played the Jr. Steelheads very tough in recent
will also take to the road for out of division series in sunny So-Cal against
the San Diego Gulls and Valencia Flyers, neither of which are slouches in their
loves the growth he has seen from the Western States Hockey League in just the
three years he's been a part of it and thinks that Commissioner Ron White is
doing a fantastic job of positioning the league to be one of North America's
elite, in terms of both play and players moving up.
we know the target will be on their backs once more and we know that their
schedule is going to be tough but Olver and the Jr. Steelheads simply win
New York Yankees of the WSHL will look to three-peat in the fall and I
certainly would not bet against it.
Brent Maranto is the Director of Communications for the Western States Hockey League