By Chris Langrill
The Idaho Statesman
FAIRBORN, Ohio — The Idaho Steelheads and Dayton Bombers are in the middle of a pitched battle for the ECHL’s Kelly Cup, and almost every hockey fan in the state of Idaho is rooting for the Steelheads.
But if there is one Bombers player who might get diehard Steelheads fans to change allegiances, it would be forward Matt Herneisen.
Herneisen, 25, has been with the Bombers longer than any other player — and there have been some lean years during his tenure. Then, when Dayton finally made the playoffs this season, he was knocked unconscious and taken off the ice on a stretcher during the Bombers’ first-round series.
He was placed on the 30-day injured reserve and presumed lost for the season, but he returned during the American Conference Finals, and he’ll be in uniform tonight for Game 4 of the Kelly Cup Finals, which Idaho leads 2-1.
Herneisen is nothing if not a study in perseverance.
“He’s been through a lot, no question,” Bombers coach Derek Clancey said. “He’s been through so much, and I think it’s a good thing for him to go through something like (the Kelly Cup Finals), because he has certainly put his time in.”
Yes, he has.
He has been with the team since 2003-04. Before this season, the Bombers finished in seventh place in their division twice and eighth once, and never came close to sniffing the postseason.
That’s not a great way to draw fans and get crowd support.
“Come Dressed as a Green Seat Night,” Herneisen said. “That was one of the old jokes. (The Nutter Center) is a really big arena, which is nice, but it’s not too nice when you don’t have too many fans.”
Costa Papista, one of the co-owners of the Bombers, said Herneisen joined the team when it was going through some rough times.
“In July of ’04 (when Papista bought into the team), we had 257 season-ticket holders and three sponsors,” he said. “Now we’re at about 1,000 season-ticket holders and 67 sponsors — and growing.”
Like Clancey, Papista appreciates Herneisen’s efforts.
“He’s seen a lot and he’s incredibly deserving of the success the team is having right now,” Papista said.
Clancey said that Herneisen didn’t have to just endure, he also had to adapt.
“At the start of the year (when Clancey took over the team), I wasn’t sure if he would fit in, to be honest,” he said. ” I remember pulling him aside early in camp and saying, ‘This is what I think of you, and this is what you now have to be.'”
While the head coach of the Reading Royals, Clancey wasn’t too impressed with Herneisen at times when he was on the opposite bench.
“He was a player who took a lot of bad penalties in the past,” Clancey said. “… Coaching against him, I would tell my guys to go bump him, because I knew he would get upset and our chances of getting a power play were good.”
“He’s come leaps and bounds from that,” Clancey said.
The 6-foot, 180-pound Herneisen had a career-high 172 penalty minutes in 2004-05 and that number’s dropped to 103 this season. Herneisen had a goal and assist against Idaho in Game 2, his only points in the Kelly Cup Finals. He had 35 points in 60 regular-season games.
“Now he’s one of our go-to guys, and he’s sacrificed himself numerous times,” Clancey said.
One of those sacrifices wasn’t intentional.
Herneisen was knocked cold in Dayton’s first-round series against Trenton, and he isn’t shy about telling his side of the story about what happened and who was responsible.
“Trenton’s Pierre-Luc Leblond, I have no problem telling you who it was,” Herneisen said. “It was a pretty malicious attack. I picked up the puck along the boards like any winger would and the guy just charged me from behind from the middle of the ice and elbowed me in the back of the head. … They said he knocked my helmet off and I went face first into the glass.”
He has to rely on other people’s recollection of the incident, because he doesn’t remember the hit.
“The next thing I remember is the trainer telling me to get up, and for the first time in my life, I just couldn’t,” he said. “I was so bad that I thought they were taking me back to the bench, but they were really carrying me off the ice. They took me out on a stretcher.”
Nobody would have blamed him if he sat out the rest of the playoffs. But after a visit to a plastic surgeon, he was back in uniform two series later against Florida in the American Conference Finals — wearing a cage mask to protect his face. Herneisen, who wouldn’t go into the specifics of the injuries he sustained, will wear that mask through the Kelly Cup Finals, as will the Steelheads’ Colin Peters, who took a puck to the face in the National Conference Finals against Alaska.
The two had a brief encounter during an on-ice skirmish during Sunday night’s Game 3.
“We just kind of looked at each other,” Herneisen said. “Neither one of us knows what’s wrong with the other one, but obviously there’s something wrong with our faces.”
But there’s definitely nothing wrong with Herneisen’s will.
“You won’t find a guy who does more for his team than he does,” Clancey said.