By Chris Langrill
The Idaho Statesman
Former Idaho Steelheads goaltender Dan Ellis has made his way to the NHL, where he is playing for the Nashville Predators.He is 4-0 with two shutouts in his four starts. Prior to this season, he had played in more than 100 games in the American Hockey League, the league that is one step above the ECHL. Certainly, with a lofty resume like this, his time spent with the Steelheads pales in comparison.
“That whole stretch drive with the Steelheads was one of the biggest hockey memories for me, even bigger in some ways than playing in the NHL,” Ellis said last week by phone from Nashville.
That stretch drive he spoke of would be Idaho’s first ECHL championship, which the Steelheads won in 2004. Ellis was named the Kelly Cup playoffs MVP after posting a 13-3 record in the postseason with a 1.86 goals-against average.
“When you win a championship you have a great bond with the city, you have a great bond with the group of players,” Ellis said. “It’s definitely something you never, ever forget.”
Ellis won the Kelly Cup during his rookie year and remains the only player to wear a Steelheads uniform and play in the NHL during the same season. He spent four years in the Dallas Stars organization before becoming an unrestricted free agent this past offseason.
He saw that Dallas had a logjam at goalie, so he decided to shop his wares to other NHL teams. He was prepared for the process to take weeks, but instead signed with the Predators within 24 hours after becoming a free agent.
He knew right away he had found the right fit.
“I really feel at home in this city,” Ellis said. “It’s very low-key, much like Boise, actually.”
He also must feel at home in a Predators uniform. He won his only start with Dallas during the 2003-04 season, and has yet to taste defeat as a starter this season.
The 27-year-old remains the backup to veteran Chris Mason, but as a recent posting on CBS Sports’ Web site said, “Don’t look now but Ellis – not Chris Mason – is the best goalie in Nashville.”
That’s heady stuff for someone who has just five career starts in the NHL, but don’t expect the grounded Ellis to get carried away by it. He just goes out and plays the game the way he always has, he said.
“In Boise, you’re playing in front of 6,000 fans, and now you’re playing in front of 18,000 fans, and you really don’t notice that much of a difference,” he said. “You realize you’re just playing a game.”
Jeremy Mylymok, one of Ellis’ Steelheads teammates, said that no-nonsense approach to the game is one of the goaltender’s biggest attributes.
“In the NHL, 90 percent of the players are very close in size and skill, so it comes down to the mental side,” Mylymok said. “Dan is very businesslike, and he was always the same. Even in practice we were like, ‘You can’t score on this guy.’ ”
That’s why Mylymok isn’t surprised to see Ellis succeed.
“Even when he was here, you could tell he had the focus and determination to make it to the NHL,” he said.
Mylymok said he has been in touch with Ellis off and on since he left the Steelheads.
Asked whether he remains in contact with other teammates, Ellis said there are a few. Then he began listing them off the top of his head. He recently saw Sean Peach. He’s traded phone messages with Zenon Konopka, text messages with Mylymok. Lance Galbraith. Scott Burt. Blair Allison.
“I guess there are actually quite a few guys,” he said. “It’s been four or five years ago now, but those are bonds that you never break.”
Ellis said it all goes back to the Kelly Cup win. No matter how successful his NHL career is, no matter how long he plays hockey, that championship season will always be a part of him, he said.
“You have a ring to remind you of the great times and there’s a championship banner in the rafters and it’s just a great feeling,” Ellis said. “I have unbelievable memories of Boise and everything about it. I had a great time in Idaho.”