ALLEN, Texas – I have been thinking about sharing my thoughts on Steve Martinson‘s status in Allen for some time. Because I cover the team daily, I have the privilege to talk to many people about all that goes on around the team. Over the last few months, I have talked to everyone from the team owner, team president, general managers from other teams, broadcasters, prospective team owners, players past and present, fans, and sponsors, to name a few. And, of course, I talk to Steve Martinson frequently.
After the big win on Wednesday that has Allen tied for first place in the Western Conference, along with seeing the announcements in the last few days that Wichita coach Bruce Ramsay and Tulsa coach Rob Murray have been given contract extensions, it is time for me to put up or shut up.
Here are my thoughts:
– The most important opinion on what happens to Steve Martinson is that of team owner Jack Gulati. When you take all the financial risk as Gulati does, it is your right and prerogative to decide what you think is best for your organization. The 2020-21 season has been difficult for all ECHL teams, whether they are playing or not. I have talked to Jack a couple of times about Martinson’s future in Allen. While this isn’t an exact quote, it is fair to say Jack’s thought is everyone in the organization should be totally focused on the upcoming playoffs and not be distracted with contract negotiations. Jack told me directly he supports Martinson, but his preference is to deal with his contract after the playoffs. While I disagree with that approach, I don’t have any skin in the game.
– When I asked Steve Martinson for a comment on his future in Allen, he said:
“When I met with Jack Gulati, I told him I was not going to Iowa and my first choice is to stay in Allen. I asked for a contract extension and I was told to wait until after the playoffs.”
– Steve Martinson is in his 25th season as a head coach in AA hockey. It wasn’t the journey he planned after a 14-year playing career covering leagues from the NHL, AHL, IHL, and CHL. After his playing career was over, Martinson, whose college major was in business, went to work as a financial advisor for Smith Barney. He was coaching roller hockey in his spare time when San Diego brought minor league hockey to town in 1995. Martinson was recruited to coach Gulls. He won the WCHL championship in each of his first three seasons. Ten championships later, including four straight in Allen, and 1086 regular season wins under his belt, Martinson is the second-winningest pro hockey coach in history.
– Martinson is the reigning ECHL General Manager of the Year, but as far as I am concerned, the 2020-21 season will go down as the best of his nine seasons in Allen as a general manager. With two games remaining, Allen could win the Western Conference or finish in third place, but it doesn’t make any difference how Allen finishes the season or how far the Americans go in the playoffs. Martinson has assembled a team talented enough to win the Kelly Cup and done so under extraordinary circumstances.
– As an owner, all you can ask of a coach and general manager is to recruit a team capable of winning a championship, and that is what Steve Martinson has done throughout his coaching career. In 25 years of coaching, he has missed the playoffs twice and won 10 championships. In his ninth season in Allen, Martinson has missed the playoffs just once and won the championship four of the six times he has been in the playoffs.
– Unlike higher leagues (AHL & NHL) where you have long-term contracts, in the ECHL, teams must be rebuilt every season. You are able to keep a few guys, but basically, Martinson must replace the whole team each year. For example, there wasn’t a single player from Allen’s first championship (2013) on the fourth championship (2016) team.
With all of the past success, here is why I think Martinson’s best year as a general manager was this season (2020-21):
1. COVID was an issue with all teams but decimated the Americans. In February, they had so many guys out of the lineup Martinson personally drove to Austin in the worst ice storm in memory to pick up players from San Jose. He had to sign three players off the street to play in Greenville. While other teams canceled games when shorthanded because of COVID, Martinson followed protocols but found a way to play.
2. Because of some off the ice financial issues, Martinson lost the secondary affiliation he had built with the San Jose organization. Five players were pulled from Allen and sent to Orlando. It not only hurt at the time, but there were plans to send players for the playoffs, including some San Jose draft choices. If you look at points per game this season for Allen, the top two are players from San Jose. Joe Garreffa, who was just selected to the All-Rookie team, averaged 1.17 points per game, and Kyle Topping averaged 1.14 points per game. Jake McGrew scored six goals in just 11 games before being recalled to San Jose. Goalie Zack Sawchenko played in seven games for Allen before being recalled and had a save percentage of .926, which is the best of the five goalies that played in Allen this season. The plan was to have these players available to Allen during the season, but for those recalled, they would return for the playoffs. When San Jose stopped dealing with Allen, all these plans went down the drain.
3. The Iowa affiliation was also different from what was planned. I am sure COVID issues played a role, but Allen never received the numbers of players from Iowa that were expected. The best example of this is Tyler Sheehy, who was just assigned back to Allen. The reigning ECHL Rookie of the Year and runner-up MVP started the season in Allen but was recalled by Iowa at the end of January. Tyler was a healthy scratch for most of the last six weeks of the Iowa season. He played in just two games in April and May.
It is a foregone conclusion the Wild are switching their ECHL affiliation from Allen to the new franchise in Coralville, Iowa, for next season. It seems like the Wild lost interest in helping Allen once that decision was reached. Tyler was reassigned to Allen over two weeks after Iowa finished its season. You can bet it was Martinson that made that happen.
4. It seems like a long time ago, but Jesse Mychan was the ECHL leading goal scorer when he got injured and was done for the year. Jesse hasn’t played in two and a half months but is still the fourth-leading goal scorer on the Americans. Long-term injuries to Dyson Stevenson, Nolan Kneen, Phil Beaulieu, and Colby McAuley have added to the problems.
5. I include loss of toughness as a separate category Martinson has had to deal with. Those hard-nosed players are physical, finish their checks, and will drop the gloves when necessary. Jesse Mychan, Dyson Stevenson, Colby McAuley, Sam Laberge, Nolan Kneen, and Zane Franklin have missed games due to injury. Turner Ottenbreit was loaned to Iowa and never returned, Will Lochead was loaned to Cleveland and suffered a season-ending injury, Kayle Doetzel went home, and Chaz Reddekopp was one of the San Jose players pulled from Allen. These 10 physical players will have missed a combined total of over 400 games by season’s end.
6. Steve Martinson is playing this season with the fact his contract with the Americans is over in a month. No contract extension has been offered to the second-winningest pro coach in history and the reigning ECHL General Manager of the Year. As I write this, Allen has the most wins in the ECHL this season (43). Talk about a distraction. Can you imagine not knowing the future for yourself and your family, dealing with vacating your apartment as playoffs occur, talking to teams looking for a coach after their ECHL season is over?
– Any of the issues above could derail a season but not for general manager Steve Martinson who has used all of his experience and contacts to replace almost an entire team. I know firsthand he has talked to many current players, former players, agents, coaches, and general managers in an attempt to improve the team. He has had to rely on rookies to a great extent this season, with a total of 26 playing thus far and 12 currently on the roster. Most of the rookies are players that have been top scorers and leaders on their teams.
– Chad Butcher and Steve Owre came from the University of Alberta. Collin Shirley and Sam Ruopp came from the University of Saskatchewan. Martinson found AHL players he could get assigned in Brett Neumann and Terrance Amorosa. Getting Neumann assigned directly resulted from loaning goalies C.J. Motte and Frank Marotte to Bridgeport (AHL).
Martinson traded for players; some worked out, and some didn’t, but he kept trying to improve the team. The trade that acquired Darian Skeoch was important to add toughness. Signing free agents like Kelly Bent and Kris Mylarri helped balance the roster with plenty of skill and grit. Trades, free agents, college players, talking to AHL teams, talking to players sitting at home, Martinson left no stone unturned.
– The bottom line is Steve Martinson has had to grind all season dealing with issues that made it difficult to compete. He has used a record number of 52 players, breaking the previous Allen record of 46. Despite not being offered a contract extension, all he did was overcome the many obstacles put in his way. He has rebuilt the team and has once again found a roster capable of winning the Kelly Cup, and that is all you can ask.
– It has to be frustrating for Steve Martinson since it appears his future in Allen comes down to how the team performs in the playoffs. He sees other coaches in the division getting contract extensions (in the playoffs and not). He has dealt with losing two affiliations for nothing related to what has happened on the ice. There was one week during the season the team lost nine top players due to organizational issues outside of his control.
Whether the Americans finish first or third in the conference and whether Allen wins the Kelly Cup or loses in the first round, this the best job Steve Martinson has done as a general manager since arriving in Allen in 2012. It would sure be nice to see him get the contract extension he deserves.
The 2021-22 season is going to be a challenge for all ECHL teams. Europe is back to recruiting a large number of North American players. Because of COVID issues, most North American colleges did not play a full season, and players were given an extra year of eligibility. That means fewer players to recruit over the summer than in the past because many will stay in school an extra year. Martinson has proven over the years his ability to recruit. His style of play is fun for fans and great for players looking to move up to the AHL or go overseas. Since the 2009-10 season, the 100-point plateau has been reached six times in the ECHL. Five of the six were achieved by players on Martinson-coached teams.
In closing, let me quote two of my colleagues from The Sin Bin who capture the essence of the importance of Steve Martinson to the ECHL and the Allen Americans. They say it better than I can, and they say it from afar:
“The ECHL needs Steve Martinson and his brand of hockey. It is entertaining, develops players, puts butts in seats, and more importantly it wins year in and year out.”…..Matthew Will
“As someone who respects Martinson and the job he has done, it is baffling to me that he hasn’t been given the chance to set his own timetable on when he will leave. Coaches who win your organization multiple championships and builds a program to prominence usually get to call their own shots (see Krzyzewski, Mike).”…..Matthew Harding