By Chris Langrill
The Idaho Statesman
DAYTON, Ohio — Idaho Steelheads coach Derek Laxdal was at a loss Thursday night.
All season long, the ever-prepared Laxdal would finish one game and immediately start to focus on the next.
This time, there wasn’t another game to worry about.
The Steelheads defeated the Dayton Bombers 4-1 on Thursday night to win the Kelly Cup Finals four games to one.
So all Laxdal could do at the Nutter Center was celebrate.
“We’re not practicing tomorrow,” he said. “We’re done.”
The normally reserved and composed Laxdal showed his more charismatic side after Idaho clinched the series. Standing on the ice, he smiled from ear to ear. He gave the players the thumbs up. He hugged anyone he could find.
“We won 16 games in the playoffs, and we’ve got the Kelly Cup championship,” Laxdal said after emerging from the Steelheads locker room wearing a white shirt that was soaked with beer.
Laxdal’s efforts caught the attention of a prominent observer.
“They’re a well-coached hockey team,” said Patrick Kelly, the ECHL commissioner emeritus for whom the championship trophy is named. “They do all the little things right. … I really enjoyed the three games (in Dayton) watching them.”
Laxdal said after Idaho’s National Conference Finals victory over the Alaska Aces that he was proud to make his mark on the franchise in only his second season with the club.
“This puts my stamp on the Steelheads,” he said at the time. “Now we have another job to do.”
With Thursday’s win, Laxdal joined former coach John Olver in leading the Steelheads to an ECHL championship. Olver led the Steelheads to the 2004 title.
Laxdal was 43-21-8 in his first season in Idaho, but the Steelheads were eliminated by Las Vegas in the first round of the 2006 ECHL playoffs.
The coach vowed to spend the offseason adding depth to his team, a move that eventually led to this week’s championship.
Evidence of the depth sat in the Nutter Center stands as Idaho clinched its championship. Alexander Naurov, a fourth-round pick by the Dallas Stars in the 2003 NHL Draft, didn’t play Thursday night. He was a game-day scratch because teams are allowed to suit only 18 players for a game.
Naurov played in eight playoff games, with no points and two penalty minutes, but he certainly would have played in more games on a team with less depth.
Laxdal had a postseason roster with changeable parts — just the way he likes it.
“Playoffs are a funny thing when you get a group of guys in the dressing room who believe,” he said.
Laxdal especially liked the character of his team when it came to putting its foot on the jugular of its foe.
“We didn’t go to a Game 7 the whole playoffs,” he said.
Then, while he was talking in the midst of Thursday night’s celebration, it happened. He let himself slip and started thinking ahead, like he always does.
“Now we move on to next year,” he said. “We start recruiting and building for next year.”
At least this time he gave himself a few minutes to enjoy the win before he started looking ahead.