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Forged Steelheads: How Idaho became a launch pad for two AHL All-Stars

Alex Belzile and Neil Graham took different paths but ended up in Laval on All-Star weekend.

AHL: FEB 06 All-Star Classic

Laval Rocket captain Alex Belzile received the news he was going to the All Star Game in his home rink so last minute, he couldn’t make plans for friends and family to get to the game.

The last minute call needed a few things to happen. First, Belzile needed to be sent down, then Justin Barron — the person he replaced — needed to say in the NHL. Those things happened, and it led to a reunion with someone Belzile met on his winding road to the NHL.

Belzile was in his third professional season when he joined the Idaho Steelheads for the 2014-15 season. That same season, Neil Graham was in his third season as an assistant coach for the Steelheads. This past weekend, Belzile represented the North Division while Graham, who now coaches the Texas Stars, was the coach of the Central Division team.

At that point, Belzile had three stops in the ECHL and a short stint with the Hamilton Bulldogs in the AHL, but hadn’t had sustained success. The season in Idaho was his breakout. He had 28 goals and 41 assists in 63 games, and finished second in team scoring.

“I remember him being a very intelligent, cerebral hockey player,” Graham said about Belzile. “Passionate for the game. Passionate for learning. He was an excellent teammate and that’s just Alex Belzile the hockey player. I think as a person, I thoroughly enjoyed him. Just seeing him today was exciting. It’s been a while, we obviously then faced off against each other in the playoffs on different teams but to see him ultimately get to the Montreal Canadiens and live out his dream it’s been special to watch his development and growth. It’s special that I get to see him here.”

“That’s what it’s all about at the All-Star game. My first one in Springfield, I had a coach that coached me in Alaska in the ECHL,” Belzile said. “It’s fun to see Neil having success in his coaching career too. He was a really dedicated coach and I had fun in Idaho that year, we had a really good team and it’s obviously fun to see him again.”

After the year in Idaho, Belzile had two more seasons split between the AHL and ECHL before joining the Rocket. After one season in Laval, he earned himself an NHL contract for the first time at 27 years old. He made his NHL debut in the bubble playoffs in 2020, before ultimately earning a regular season shot the next season.

“It’s a perfect example of perseverence,” Graham said. “When we coached him, he was extremely driven not only to move to a higher level but he knew what needed to be done and he was passionate for the winning side of games. He pushed his teammates, he wanted to do things the right way and there’s no shock that he was able to work his way up. You look at his hockey resume, the different stops along the way, he probably has quite the story to tell but us being a small chapter in that story is special and we’re proud of him and we’re not shocked.”

While Belzile worked his way up to the NHL, Graham is doing so as well. The year after Belzile was in Idaho, Graham became the Steelheads’ head coach. He stayed there for four years before becoming an assistant with the Texas Stars. That same year, he was promoted to head coach after Jim Montgomery’s dismissal led to a shakeup of the organization’s coaches.

Now in his third full season with the Stars, he has led them to a 24-11-9 record, which was top in the Central Division. The organization views him highly, and he’s surely a rising star (no pun intended) in the coaching ranks. While Graham wasn’t surprised that Belzile made it all the way to the NHL, Belzile isn’t surprised that Graham has made it this far, either.

“He’s been a hard working guy, he’s sharp in his approach to hockey,” Belzile said. “He’s really serious. When you work hard and do the right things, good things that can happen.”