The Idaho Spuds were an unlikely contender in the CHL. Last season, playing as the Muncie Squirrels, they finished fourth in their division. Their rebuilding parent club, the Dakota Jackalopes, called up several of the best prospects from that squad. The Spuds received a warm reception in their new home, regularly selling out Treasure Valley Arena. But the idea that they’d finish above .500, much less make the playoffs, seemed far-fetched to most observers.
However, coach Gilbert McCoyne wasn’t interested in what most observers thought. “I wasn’t about to put any limits on what we could achieve,” McCoyne said. “I just told my guys, ‘Why not us?’”
McCoyne’s power-of-positive-thinking approach paid dividends. Idaho not only made the playoffs, they dismissed the heavily-favored division-winning Omaha Ashcats in a stunning sweep. Then in the Finals, they dethroned the defending champion Virginia Rhinos in six games to win their first-ever Howard Trophy.
“This season has been one wild ride!” said Spuds C Dale Wilcox. “We never gave up and never stopped believing, and now we’re the champs!”
The series opened in Boise in front of another pair of sellout crowds, and the Spuds gave their fans plenty to cheer about. In Game 1, fueled by the energy of their fans, a fired-up Idaho team outshot the Rhinos 32-20. The Spuds capitalized on their power play opportunities, going 3-for-4 in man-advantage situations, and goalie Kelvin White registered a shutout in a 3-0 Idaho win. In Game 2, the Spuds once again had a huge advantage in shots, outshooting Virginia 43-23, but White wasn’t quite as sharp. Idaho squandered a 4-2 lead in the third period when Rhinos LW Yuri Laronov and LW Errol Garner scored 90 seconds apart, but RW Britt Cadmium came through with what proved to be the game-winning goal in a 5-4 triumph.
The Rhinos regained their footing a bit in the middle three games, which took place on their ice. In Game 3, Virginia got a pair of second-period goals from Laronov and D Gustaf Bergstrom, and goalie Quentin Chislic stopped all 30 Idaho shots for a 2-0 win. In Game 4, Virginia got the early edge, only to see Idaho seize control of the game in the second on the way to a 6-2 blowout that included three third-period goals. Staring at elimination, the Rhinos pushed back in Game 5, building a 3-0 lead through the first forty minutes. The Spuds pushed back in the third, putting up another three-goal frame, but Virginia held on for a 5-3 win. C Trent Harlow scored two goals in a winning effort for the defending champs.
With the action shifting back to Treasure Valley Arena for Game 6, the Spuds were looking for the quick kill, while the Rhinos were looking to prove that they could be competitive away from home. Idaho controlled the play once again, outshooting Virginia 38-26, but Chislic kept the Rhinos in the game. LW Van Dyke Browning scored in the opening minute to give Idaho a quick edge, but Rhinos D Gunther Stephens answered less than four minutes later to tie things up. The Spuds got back in front in the second on a score by D Brett Stolte, and D Georg Ochre made it 3-1 early in the third with a blast from the top of the faceoff circle. Idaho then endangered their lead with a string of minor penalties, and Bergstrom finally converted with just over five minutes remaining to pull Virginia within one. The Spuds managed to stay out of the penalty box after that, though, and the Rhinos couldn’t come up with an equalizer in the time remaining.
Ochre, who led all Idaho scorers with 7 points (3 goals, 4 assists), earned the Finals MVP honors. His teammates mobbed the quiet, rugged defenseman they fondly call “The Ogre.” As Wilcox quipped, “I can’t wait to hear the Ogre’s acceptance speech, ‘cause it’ll be the first time he’s said more than two words in a row.”
For many of the Spuds, their next challenge will come in the SHL, as they’re called up and tasked with reviving the Jackalopes’ sagging fortunes. “Making it in the SHL is a different kind of challenge,” admitted Wilcox. “But we’ve gotten this far by believing in ourselves, so why not keep going?”