Western States Hockey League

Western States Hockey League: Idaho Steelheads reflect upon fifth Thorne Cup championship

Western States Hockey League: Idaho Steelheads reflect upon fifth Thorne Cup championship

By Brian Lester

The Idaho Jr. Steelheads found themselves in a familiar position at the end of the Western States Hockey League season.

They are Thorne Cup champions once again, winning the crown for the fifth time in franchise history in April with a three-game sweep of the Colorado Jr. Eagles in the championship series.

All three games were close, with Idaho winning the opening two games by a 3-2 count. Idaho sealed the deal on the title with a 5-4 win.

Western States Hockey League,WSHL,Idaho Junior Steelheads,Thorne Cup,USA Junior Hockey

The Idaho Jr. Steelheads defeated the Colorado Jr. Eagles for the 2016 Thorne Cup. Courtesy WSHL / Gary Ertter

“It’s a lot of fun winning it again and it feels great,” said assistant head coach Jason Smith. “There were some people who probably didn’t think we were the favorite but our guys stepped up and played very well. We gave a tremendous effort in all three games and were able to beat a very good team.”

Kyle Williams played a pivotal role in the team’s success, particularly in the postseason, and Smith said his effort motivated everyone else. He scored seven goals and dished out four assists in the postseason. He scored 35 goals in the regular season and dished out 36 assists as well.

Williams was flat out phenomenal in the series-clinching game. He scored three times and dished out an assist on another goal as he helped the Steelheads take down the Eagles. Jackson York and Hunter Lester also scored goals for the Steelheads in the final game.

“When you see your captain working hard and sacrificing his body to make plays, everyone else is going to follow his lead,” Smith said. “Our team had a great work ethic and that helped carry us to a championship.”

Nothing was guaranteed for the Steelheads going into the playoffs even if they did have a tradition of success. And nothing came easy in a league that is among the best in the country.

“Missoula had beaten us three times during the season and Colorado beat us at the showcase,” Smith said. “Colorado came into that series on a roll and played very well. It was tough all the way through and for us to find a way to come out on top is a big accomplishment. It says a lot about our team.”

There was a point earlier in the year when Idaho struggled to keep momentum, especially when it lost three in a row to Missoula in November.

“There was a stretch where things looked pretty rough,” Smith said. “But we stuck together and we found a way to keep pushing through and win games.

“We had a lot of new guys step up and our veterans did a great job as well. The guys believed in the system and bought into what we were teaching them. We really played well down the stretch and it carried into the playoffs.”

Idaho is a team that always has high expectations, after winning five of the last six championships, but Smith said the players did a good job of handling it and understood what it took to be a championship team.

“The people around the program have high expectations and coach [John] Olver knows how to lead a winning team. He did a great job with the players and always brings out the best in them. The players knew what was expected of them and worked hard to win a title.”

Idaho is expected to lose the majority of its team, but the franchise always seems to rebuild instead of reload. That isn’t expected to change this year.

“We’re already at it with recruiting because we know we have a lot of holes to fill for next year,” Smith said. “Our team is going to have a different look next year but we expect to be in that mix for a championship again.”

 

Read past Western States Hockey League articles in our archives:

Idaho Jr. Steelheads ‘dodged bullet’ to make semifinals

Defensively strong Oklahoma City Blazers making big noise

Phoenix Knights keep heads high after showcase, rebound quickly

Western States Hockey League: Idaho Jr. Steelheads ‘dodged bullet’ to make semifinals

Western States Hockey League: Idaho Jr. Steelheads ‘dodged bullet’ to make semifinals

By Brian Lester

As Idaho prepared for the final four of the Thorne Cup playoffs over the first weekend of April, Steelheads head coach Jon Olver took a moment to reflect on the previous three-game series against Missoula and how much it benefited his team going forward.

Idaho won the opener 2-1 and finished off the grueling and competitive series with a 5-4 victory. Both Western States Hockey League postseason games went to overtime.Western States Hockey League,WSHL,Idaho Jr. Steelheads,Trent Ritchie,Thorne Cup,USA Junior Hockey

“We had a very tough series and I think it really helped us with our playoff mindset,” Olver said. “We won both games in overtime, but we easily could have lost both games and been done with our season. I have a lot of respect for their organization. Being able to win that series gives us a lot of confidence.”

Defense has been instrumental to the Steelheads’ success in the playoffs and it’s hardly a surprise as they gave up a league-low 78 goals in the regular season.

“We continue to play strong defense,” Olver said. “We have done a good job of closing off the middle of the ice. Defense has been our strength all year and you have to be able to play great defense to succeed in the playoffs.”

Olver is thrilled with how his team has handled the challenges it has faced along the way in the postseason as it takes aim at defending its league championship.

One thing is for sure, the team that does win the title will have earned it without a doubt.

“The caliber of play in the league has really risen. The first three rounds have been as competitive as any in the history of the league,” Olver added. “It’s made for really exciting hockey and whichever team wins the championship will feel a great sense of accomplishment.”

Olver is hoping his team will be the last one standing.

“We dodged a bullet in that Missoula series,” Olver said. “We have to continue to find ways to win tight games because that is what it’s going to take to come out on top in the playoffs.”

Read past Western States Hockey League articles in our archives:

Defensively strong Oklahoma City Blazers making big noise

Phoenix Knights keep heads high after showcase, rebound quickly

Western States Hockey League: Defensively strong Oklahoma City Blazers making big noise

Western States Hockey League: Defensively strong Oklahoma City Blazers making big noise

It’s been a tremendous year so far for the Oklahoma City Blazers.

The Blazers are 37-6, which happens to not only be the best record in the Mid-Western Division, but is good for first in the entire Western States Hockey League as well.

“We have an older team with a lot of experience,” said Oklahoma City head coach Tyler Fleck. “We went into the year believing we could be one of the best teams. Our standards have been set high. We expect perfection and approach every game like we are pros.”Western States Hockey League,WSHL,Oklahoma City Blazers,Tyler Fleck,USA Junior Hockey

One of the keys to the Blazers’ success is defense. Oklahoma City is in the top seven in the WSHL with 115 goals allowed.

Goaltenders Filip Kostka and Ole Nilsen have shared time. Kostka has played in 27 games and Nilsen has seen action in 16 games. Kostka has made 619 saves and Nilsen has tallied 331.

“We have two goaltenders who are both big and who move very well,” Fleck said. “Our defense as a whole has played very well. We have good depth up front. The players are fast and skilled. We are a fairly well rounded team overall.”
Fleck said team chemistry has also been vital to the Blazers’ success.

“We brought in a lot of imports this year and it took time for the team to come together,” Fleck said. “The guys have really learned to play well as a team.”

Oklahoma City is no doubt a contender for the league title and Fleck is confident his team will be in the mix if it continues to play consistent hockey.

“Consistency is the big thing for us,” Fleck said. “We’ve been pretty consistent all year, only having a few hiccups along the way, but we feel like we can play even better. We want to peak at the right time and be in a position to compete for a title.”

 

Read past Western States Hockey League articles in our archives:

Phoenix Knights keep heads high after showcase, rebound quickly

Valencia Flyers soar above competition in Western Division

Dallas Snipers see encouraging success after first month

Western States Hockey League: Phoenix Knights keep heads high after showcase, rebound quickly

Western States Hockey League: Phoenix Knights keep heads high after showcase, rebound quickly

By Brian Lester

Playing in the Western States Hockey League Showcase proved to be a bit of a juggling act for the Phoenix Knights.

Several players were going back and forth between Las Vegas and Phoenix for final exams and that meant things got a little hectic when it came to juggling lineups.Phoenix Knights,Western States Hockey League,WSHL,Tyler Ramsey,USA Junior Hockey

“It was hard to get the team chemistry set, but I’m proud of the way our guys handled the situation, especially in a crazy environment,” said Phoenix head coach Chris Walker.

The Knights lost all four of their games in the showcase, but only one loss was by more than two goals.

Despite the tough end to the first half of the year, Walker believes his players gained a lot from the experience. They cashed in on that by winning their first three games of the new year against the San Diego Sabers.

“We did a lot of learning in the first half of the season,” Walker said. “Our guys have learned about being better hockey players and better people. It’s a great thing to see.”

The Knights head into the mid-January weekend with a 15-13-0-3 record. Dominick Synek is the team’s top goal scorer, punching in 26 goals and dishing out 22 assists.

Andrus Arunas Bermejo (18-19-37) and Zemlika Vojtech (23-22-45) are also among the top offensive players in the league for the Knights.

As the Knights gear up for the second half of the year, one of the things they will focus on the most is finishing games.

“We have to do a better job with that,” Walker said. “We’ve had leads in a lot of games and will just go through a stretch that hurts us. If we can get better at that, we’ll be in good shape.”

Walker is confident it will all come together for the Knights as they go forward.

“We want to get back to being one of the top teams in the conference, which is where we were at the start of the year,” Walker said. “The big thing is being consistent and putting a string of wins together. We’re capable of doing it and making a run in the playoffs.”

 

Read past Western States Hockey League articles in our archives:

Valencia Flyers soar above competition in Western Division

Dallas Snipers see encouraging success after first month

Western States Hockey League: Valencia Flyers soar above competition in Western Division

Western States Hockey League: Valencia Flyers soar above competition in Western Division

The Valencia Flyers have established themselves as the team to beat in the Western States Hockey League’s Western Division, at least after a little over two months of play.

Through 24 games, Valencia was 22-2, good enough for first place in a highly competitive division where four other teams were above .500 as of Dec. 14. The Flyers were on a 13-game winning streak dating back to Oct. 29. Western States Hockey League,WSHL,Valencia Flyers,USA Junior Hockey

“We’ve been playing great lately,” said assistant coach Chris Greene, in mid-November. “We had a couple of tough losses but our guys work hard and never give up. It’s a great group to be around.”

Jacob Kranabetter has paved the way offensively, scoring 12 goals to go along with 23 assists. He was the only player from the team in the top 10 in points in the division.

Niklas Giers was second on the team in points with 28. He scored eight goals and dished out 20 assists in 24 games.

“The big thing about us is that we aren’t flashy. We keep things simple on offense,” Greene said. “We’re not the biggest team in the league but we find ways to be physical.”

Depth is a big part of the Flyers’ success as well.

“Our depth is incredible,” Greene said. “We have four lines that are all effective and can get the job done. They feed off each other and everyone understands their roles.”

The Flyers are determined to remain one of the top teams in the league and hope to ultimately win the league championship.

“Our focus is on a championship,” Greene said. “The key for us is to be consistent. There are going to be tough nights, but you have to keep playing hard and our guys understand that. Our coaching staff does a great job of getting the guys ready to play every night.”

 

Read past Western States Hockey League articles in our archives:

Dallas Snipers see encouraging success after first month

Thunder building for big year in Wichita

Idaho Jr. Steelheads celebrate fourth Thorne Cup championship