By Chadd Cripe
The Idaho Statesman
ESTERO, Fla. — The ECHL contained more teams than the NBA, NHL or Major League Baseball this season.
Its teams were in as many U.S. states as MLB (17). Its playoff format was more comprehensive than any of North America’s four major pro sports leagues.
The Idaho Steelheads and Florida Everblades aren’t competing for just another minor-league title when the best-of-seven ECHL Kelly Cup Finals begin at 5:30 p.m. MDT today at TECO Arena.
They’re playing for a national championship at the Double-A level.
“It’s the biggest challenge I’ve ever faced, and it’s exciting to be a part of,” said Idaho coach John Olver, who took teams to the finals six times in the much smaller West Coast Hockey League. “… This feels like a real run to a championship. Because of the size of this, because of the geography, it has been a much, much bigger hill to climb — and we’re still not there.”
The Steelheads began this season, their first in the 31-team ECHL, with roughly the same odds of winning a title as the Seattle Seahawks or Los Angeles Kings.
On top of those odds, they’ve already taken three trips over 2,000 miles this postseason — to Alaska, Georgia and Florida — and have played in four time zones.
“It’s 31 teams, so you have a (3.2) percent chance of raising the cup,” said Florida defenseman Ryan Brindley, the only man on either team with a Kelly Cup ring. “At those odds, you look at it at the beginning of the year and it’s pretty tough to achieve. It’s just a real tough, long road.”
“We’ve gotten a lot of e-mails from other teams in the West Coast league saying, ‘Bring home the championship for the West Coast,’ ” said Idaho captain Jeremy Mylymok, who played three WCHL seasons with Idaho.
The WCHL long has smelled an air of arrogance wafting in from the East. Now’s the time for the West to prove it’s every bit as good as the East.
The old WCHL teams (the Pacific Division) went 28-35-9 against the existing ECHL teams this season.”It’s a compliment to the West Coast league that a team was able to make it in,” Florida goalie Rob Zepp said. “All those teams are very competitive. Players from both leagues are playing all over the country now.”
The Steelheads needed about 111/2 hours to get from their Boise residences to their Bonita Springs hotel on Wednesday/Thursday. They checked in after 2 a.m. EDT.
They will take a 5:40 a.m. EDT flight out of Southwest Florida on Sunday. The Everblades, accustomed to long bus rides, follow on Monday.
If this series goes the distance, both teams will make two 5,574-mile round trips.
“It just makes it feel a little more professional that you have to fly across the country to play a game,” Zepp said.
The Steelheads already have made round trips to Las Vegas (1,250 miles), Anchorage (5,482 miles) and Gwinnett County, Ga., (4,402 miles) this postseason.
Players planned to check out the beach and an upscale outlet mall during their free time Thursday afternoon.
“Delta’s been treating us really good,” defenseman Darrell Hay said. “I think we’ve gotten the same flight groups a couple of times. It’s nice that they recognize us and still like us.”