Perhaps no team has made as an immediate of an impact on the ECHL as the Idaho Steelheads have. And few players played a bigger role in that than Dan Ellis.
Drafted by the Dallas Stars in the second round of the 2000 NHL Draft, Ellis was making his debut the same time the Steelheads were; the 2003-04 season. After three seasons playing collegiately at The University of Nebraska-Omaha, Ellis backstopped the Idaho franchise in its inaugural campaign in the ECHL until receiving a promotion to the AHL’s Utah Grizzlies in December.
He posted a 13-8-1 mark in 23 games, with a 2.56 goals-against average and .909 save percentage to boot. But the travel, the adjustment to the pro game, the lifestyle — it wasn’t quite as easy at Ellis had made it look at first.
"I just remember the change of pace, the skills had improved from college to pro," he said. "Guys were a little bit smarter making decisions out there, so there was a little bit of an adjustment time. But we had a great team there, and it made the adjustment very simple."
"Going from college where you just play on weekends to pro, you’ve got a lot more travel. I was fortunate with our team, we flew a lot of places. We were up in Boise, whereas most east coast teams would take the bus and stuff like that. We had a great division, it was almost like being on vacation all year long; going to California, Vegas and Alaska because that’s where all the teams were located."
Ellis continued to excel at the next level, posting solid numbers despite winning just two of his first seven decisions with Utah. He even put up a shutout in his first AHL contest, a spectacular 47 save, 6-0 blanking of Manchester on December 19, 2003.
In the meantime, the Dallas organization was being ravaged by injuries between the pipes, with veteran backup Ron Tugnutt injuring his groin, leading to a rotation of Jason Bacashihua and Mike Smith backing up Stars stalwart Marty Turco.
Turco had made 31 straight starts for the Stars heading into the middle of February, and it was then that Ellis was given a chance to serve as his backup. Fate took over from there.
"Turcs hurt himself the night before the game in L.A. and I took the warmup," Ellis said.
"I actually took shots at both ends. I’d take shots at one end, then skate to the other end and I got a little bit of a bag skate in there. They told me at the end of the skate, ‘Hey, Turco’s not going to be ready to go, you’re playing tonight.’ None of the other guys really knew, so they expected me to stay out there and continue to take shot after shot after shot."
Andy Moog, the Stars goalie coach at the time, broke the news to the team that Ellis would be getting the rare opportunity to play in the ECHL, AHL and NHL all in his first professional season. Just 23 years old at the time, he’d make his NHL debut in grand fashion at Staples Center in Los Angeles, making 25 saves to lead Dallas to a 4-3 win over the Kings on February 18, 2004.
"It happened by chance that everyone was injured and I was there at the right time. It was a real blessing and a moment I’ll never forget."
Sent down shortly thereafter, after finishing out the remainder of the regular season with Utah, the Steelheads were in the midst of the ECHL playoffs — with a roster featuring another future NHLer, Zenon Konopka — and Ellis had got the call to come back down for the Pacific Division Semifinals against the favored Las Vegas Wranglers, who took an early series lead with Ellis’ status in limbo.
"They actually flew me into Vegas, but because of rules stipulations in the American League, they couldn’t release me from my American League status yet, so I was in Vegas for Game 2 but was only able to watch it," Ellis recalled.
"I got down there for Game 3 and things got off to a good start right away. I think I had a lot of confidence from playing in the American League, and bringing that back to the East Coast with the group that we had, we just gelled very quickly. After coming back and winning that first series, the momentum just took us straight on through."
With subsequent series wins over Alaska, Gwinnett and Florida, Ellis went 13-3 with a 1.86 goals-against average and .938 save percentage in the postseason, posting three shutouts along the way to giving Idaho its first championship and being named the Kelly Cup Playoffs MVP. The Steelheads have since gone to make two more appearances in the Kelly Cup Finals, winning again in 2007 and falling to Cincinnati last season.
As for Ellis, that was his last taste of the ECHL, as he’d spend the next three seasons of his career at the AHL level, not getting another taste of the NHL until signing with the Nashville Predators prior to the 2007-08 season.
"I spent four years in the American League, and it was a situation where it didn’t seem like it was going to work out being in that organization," Ellis said.
"You get low on the totem pole and it doesn’t seem like there’s going to be an opportunity. But a change in scenery really worked for me. I got a chance to sign (with Nashville) and things worked out great out of camp. Ever since then I’ve just tried to play and earn a spot in the National Hockey League and it’s worked out so far."
For as long a road as it’s been to the NHL for the now 30 year old native of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, the current Tampa Bay Lightning netminder knows that many players aren’t as fortunate.
"Although it seems you might not make it sometimes, there is that opportunity, and there have been a lot of players that have gone from the East Coast and made it on to the NHL and had great careers," Ellis said.
"(Jaroslav) Halak is another guy who was in Long Beach and low on the totem pole. As you press through and as you continue to use that as an opportunity to improve your game instead of it being a situation where you’re upset that you’re demoted, it really gives you a chance to get more minutes that you might not get in the American League, and you can really improve yourself and your stock and continue to rise no matter what you’re playing in. That’s the way I looked at it and it worked out."