Coming off of their third consecutive Thorne Cup Title, the Idaho Jr. Steelheads will begin a new era this season, one that doesn't include John Olver.
After building the program into one of the best in all of junior hockey over just four seasons, Olver decided it was time to get back into the professional game and took a job as the General Manager of the Bakersfield Condors of the ECHL, leaving long-time assistant Kyle Grabowski to continue the Steelies' charge.
Having learned under Olver the last four seasons, Grabowki should step in and do just fine in his first junior head coaching gig, as he's seen the way Olver built a culture, how he prepares for games, recruits better than anyone in the league but most of all, according to Grabowski, how he communicates with his players.
The Minnesota native says that Olver's communication is the biggest thing he will take with him moving forward and how he always found ways to interact with his players and help them get better. His strategies and coverages are without a doubt top notch but Grabowski said he learned that there's a difference between being a hockey coach and someone that coaches hockey players.
He certainly will have some big shoes to fill but with all the momentum the Jr. Steelheads have been able to build and the type of players that flock to play for the organization, I don't see that being much of a problem.
The now three-time defending Thorne Cup Champions put together another banner year in 2013, going 44-1-1 in the regular season and undefeated throughout the playoffs, en route to winning the inaugural United Hockey Union National Championship.
The Steelies started out by winning their first 13 games of the season, before finally falling to El Paso by a score of 5-3 in the finale of a three-game set on November 11. As good teams always do, Idaho responded and won 15 in a row before losing in overtime to Boulder on January 18, their only two blemishes of the year.
They were led offensively by Stefan Brucato and Dominik Gabaj, who absolutely tore up the league, each collecting a league-leading 102 points on the season. They also featured a stifling defense led by veteran Connor Kingsbury and a goaltender in Blake Mendenhall, who sported some of the best stats in the league and also scored a goal.
With all the regular season victories, many of which they cruised to, Idaho didn't let up in the playoffs, sweeping their way through the playoffs and lifting the Thorne Cup on home ice in McCall, Idaho, a small town which did a fantastic job hosting the four-day event.
They then continued on to Las Vegas and didn't disappoint there either, winning the inaugural United Hockey Union National Championship in decisive fashion.
Moving into year five, Grabowski is focused on keeping the program flying high and constantly finding ways to improve his team. He feels that if you're not getting better, somebody else is and they'll eventually beat you. It's that thought that keeps him and his team motivated every time they step on the ice and what makes the Jr. Steelheads one of the elite programs in all of junior hockey.
Players Moving Up:
What makes the Jr. Steelheads a top destination for junior-aged players is not only their obvious on-ice success but their ability to move players on, as well.
Grabowski feels that his players really get a "pro" experience in Idaho and improve everyday their with the team. Colleges love to see that hard work pay off and they also like bringing in proven winners and guys that know how to get the job done.
A number of players from last season's roster received college hockey offers but only three decided to continue their careers and they are top forwards Stefan Brucato and Dominik Gabaj and defenseman Cole Larson.
Gabaj is off to Monroe Community College in upstate New York, while Brucato, who was one of the best players to ever come through the WSHL, is off to Johnson and Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island.
Larson, who was one of Idaho's steadiest defenseman last season, is headed to the Milwaukee School of Engineering.
They also have three players that made the Tier II North American Hockey League, including Jan Blasko and Dak Dice, who are playing together for the Rio Grande Valley Killer Bees and Josh Haverstrom, who isn't too far away in Wichita Falls with the Wildcats.
Czech forwards Filip Kasaly and Ivo Crhak are both attending camps in the ECHL and are hoping to hook on at the semi-professional level.
Players Coming Back:
Eight players return to Idaho this season and each will be expected to play an even bigger role, especially with the departure of the guys we just mentioned.
Forward Kirk Van Arkel headlines the group and Grabowski thinks he can be one of the best players in the entire league. He has all the tools you look for in a winger, with size, speed and skill and should improve on his 44 points from last year.
Another top forward coming back is August Von Ungern-Sternberg, who at 15 years of age was the youngest player in the league last season.
He was drafted by the Lincoln Stars of the Tier I United States Hockey League over the summer but has returned to Idaho for another year of seasoning.
Although he's still very young, Grabowski says he's going to be one of the go-to guys along with Van Arkel and should be in the USHL before he knows it.
With so much skill on the roster, the role players are often overlooked but Grabowski keyed in on four guys that were pivotal in Idaho's cup run last season.
Those four all return and should bring that "sandpaper" style back with them, as Tyler Danylchuk, Jesper Jensen, Randy Patzner and Zach Walden give Idaho a much-needed edge.
Only two defensemen are currently slated to return but Grabowski is excited about them both.
Viktor Ivarsson was used as a depth defenseman for most of the regular season but due to injuries to key players, he saw a lot of ice time in the post-season and never looked out of place.
Anton Virtanen is another smooth-skating Swede who is as steady as they come. He's defensive-minded but possesses an offensive flair maybe even he doesn't know he has.
The Idaho Jr. Steelheads have never had trouble finding new players and this season proved no different.
One thing about John Olver was that even with all of his success, he never rested on his coaching resume or team's record and hoped players would come to him, he went out and got them and Grabowski has done just the same.
With a glaring hole in net, he went out and grabbed Sean Healy, who has spent time in both the USHL and NAHL, most recently playing for the Kenai River Brown Bears.
Also coming by way of Kenai River is forward Bryan Hodges, who Grabowski described as an "Idaho type player." He's a powerful guy that likes to drive to the net and should see time on the Steelies' top forward line.
They've also brought in a local kid by the name of Hunter Lester, who spent last season playing high-level youth hockey in Arizona and has returned home to get his first taste of juniors. Much like Von Ungern, who he attended a US National Development camp with over the summer, he's just 16 years of age but Grabowski expects him to have a big year.
Lastly, Victor Carlsson is a Swedish forward who starred for the Vaxjo Lakers while playing in the top junior league in his home country.
Grabowski has a number of other players signed but much like Olver, he likes to play his cards close to his vest.
With all the success Idaho has had, Grabowski realizes that his team will always have a target on their backs and the opposition will always bring their "A" game in hopes of breaking their reign. He the competition however and is a huge fan of the Northwest Division, which he considers to be the toughest in the league.
With the addition of the Missoula Maulers, the Northwest is now a six-team division and Idaho will face each foe six times, including the Maulers, Ogden Mustangs, Salt Lake City Moose, Seattle Totems and Southern Oregon Spartans.
It won't take Grabowski long to get used to the division, as Idaho is actually hosting a mini pre-season tournament this weekend, along with Missoula, Seattle and Southern Oregon, which should be interesting to watch.
Outside of the division, the Jr. Steelheads will play host to the Valencia Flyers, who they've seen every year since coming into the league and the Cheyenne Stampede, who know how to play at altitude.
They'll also make two tough out of division trips, as they go to Fresno to take on the rival Monsters and to Boulder to face the Bison, a team that has historically played them very well.
Much like they do with recruiting, the Jr. Steelheads don't rebuild, they re-tool and that's exactly what they did with the hiring of Grabowski. You can't replace a John Olver but you can find someone similar and Grabowski's four years as a protégée should be more than enough to help him keep Idaho atop the WSHL this season.
Showing the type of confidence the entire organization exudes, Grabowski didn't play it safe and talk about taking it "day by day" when asked about his goals this season but instead answered with the following, "Our goal is simple. We want to be faster and more physical than every team in the league."
Brent Maranto is the Western States Hockey League Director of Communications
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