BY MIKE PRATER
THE IDAHO PRESS
Eric Trapp, the most important member of the Idaho Steelheads’ hockey team that you probably don’t know, was working in the bowels of CenturyLink Arena on Friday night when trouble broke out.
The opening game of the ECHL Kelly Cup playoffs was happening on the other side of the concrete wall, and Trapp’s phone got real busy, real fast. When bad things happen, you call the boss, or in this case, the president.
Technology behind the instant replay system had failed — shocking! — and without proper evidence, the Steelheads were denied a potential goal. Trapp, who delegated like a boss, knew he’d hear about it from the coach. And the league. And probably a few others.
Here’s the weird part: It’s playoff season, and the Steelheads know a thing or 22 about postseason hockey.
Idaho’s only professional hockey team has reached the playoffs 22 consecutive seasons — every year of its existence. The streak is tied with the San Antonio Spurs of the NBA for the longest in North American professional sports.
The streak started April 7, 1998, with a victory over the Anchorage Aces.
Six days later, in Kolin, Czech Republic, Ondrej Vala was born. Today, the promising defenseman is the youngest player on the Steelheads’ roster.
And through all those years of Vala’s young life, playoff hockey has been a constant in Boise, a city that didn’t even have ice until the Steelheads built a fancy downtown arena — attached to a fancy downtown hotel.
Trapp, an Idaho native who’s been with the organization since Day 1, said the streak is about people. Like the scrambling employees on those phones Friday night. Like Vala, his teammates, coaches, support staff and fans.
You know those lists that constantly declare Boise and the Treasure Valley as one of the best places to live? That all starts with people. The way we thrive here. The way we work, and the way we play. The pressure we put on ourselves to provide a standard and a quality of life. The way we work toward a common goal and a bright future.
That’s why so many top players come here.
And that’s why so many stick around after their playing days.
“Boise is a great city, it helps us obviously to get players,’’ Trapp said. “It’s Boise and the culture we have … doing things the right way. That’s what it really comes down to.’’
There have been close calls when the Steelheads almost didn’t make the playoffs. They’ve had four losing seasons in 22 years, and a few times, based on league rules, Idaho only made it because, well, everybody made it. The franchise’s overall postseason record is a lukewarm 93-100.
But Idaho also has two ECHL championships, has put more than 20 players in the National Hockey League, and puts a lot of butts in the seats on Friday and Saturday nights.
An additional piece of this culture equation is the Steelheads’ mysterious local ownership group, mostly the same since the beginning. Their message to Trapp and his coaches has remained the same, and in separate interviews, they listed their directives from ownership.
Trapp: Put good people in the community (captains, leaders, etc.), be smart and do the right things, work hard, be competitive.
Head coach Neil Graham: Recruit good people, stay positive in the public eye, lend a hand in the community, be competitive.
This organization, from top to bottom, is definitely on the same page.
That’s why the Steelheads are successful — on and off the ice.
Players on this year’s roster don’t obsess about past success — it’s minor-league sports and they come and go — but Graham made a rare point to recognize the streak after Idaho clinched a playoff spot by winning in Florida last month.
“The streak has become important to us, and when you know the history of the program, you feel that much more dedicated to the process,’’ Graham said.
A.J. White, this season’s captain who scored the Steelheads’ only goal Friday night, grew up in Michigan and watched closely as the Detroit Red Wings reached the NHL playoffs 25 straight seasons. That streak ended in 2017.
White also keeps an eye on the Spurs, and what they continue to do in the NBA playoffs. He throws out names such as Popovich, Duncan, Ginobili and Parker.
“They’re all great people on and off the (court), within the community, and I think that’s the reason they are able to keep having success,’’ White said. “The Spurs have good people, they appear to have a strong culture, and they’re always working and striving to win.’’
Sounds like a winning formula.
For life — and hockey playoffs.
Mike Prater is the Idaho Press sports columnist and co-hosts Idaho Sports Talk on KTIK 93.1 FM The Ticket every Monday-Friday from 3-6 p.m. He can be found on Twitter @MikeFPrater and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Prater’s opinions are his own.