CEDAR PARK — At first glance Neil Graham could be mistaken for a player during Texas Stars training camp.
He’s built like a hockey player and Graham could easily pass as a player in his mid twenties, even though he celebrated his 30th birthday this past April.
But, Graham isn’t in Cedar Park to play hockey this week. Instead, he’s here to coach and evaluate AHL camp before embarking on his first season as the head coach of the affiliated Idaho Steelheads in the ECHL.
He’s also aware of some outside perceptions surrounding his age, which makes him the youngest coach in team history and the youngest current coach in the ECHL — the average age of an ECHL coach hovers around 40.
“I’ve felt a few questions about my age,” Graham said. “And to be honest, if you command that respect from the players and you know where to draw the line on professionalism, I don’t think age matters.
“I was ready for the opportunity,” Graham continued. “Age is a number, and we’re going to have a good year.”
Graham was a quick study as an assistant under former Steelheads coach Brad Ralph, who left to coach the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets. He joined Ralph’s staff as a player/coach during the 2012-13 season, before making the full transition to coaching in 2013.
As an assistant, Graham managed Idaho’s penalty kill and defensive responsibilities the past two seasons. Last season, Idaho killed off 86-percent of penalties and only allowed 2.6 goals per game — statistically putting the Steelheads in the ECHL’s top-five defenses.
There are more responsibilities and pressure as the head coach, but Graham said he learned from Ralph on how to manage those.
He’s also used training camp to exchange ideas and learn from Texas Stars coach Derek Laxdal, who coached Idaho from 2005 to 2010.
“It’s been great getting to hang out with those guys the past couple weeks,” Graham said. “Both Karl Taylor, and Laxdal, and (Texas general manager) Scott White have open with me in bringing me in and going over systems that we run that are very similar… It’s been great to pick their brains and talk hockey. Hopefully we take some of the good stuff they have going and take it to Idaho with us.”