The Rockford IceHogs defeated the Kalamazoo Wings in Game 7 of the Colonial Cup Championship on May 24, 2007, to collect their first United Hockey League title in what proved to be the organization’s last game in the UHL. While the league trophy was the first for the organization, it was nothing new for Head Coach Steve Martinson.
After a professional playing career that spanned 14 seasons and included 49 games with 244 PIMs in the National Hockey League, Martinson led the San Diego Gulls to a West Coast Hockey League (WCHL) championship in his first season behind the bench (1995-96). Martinson collected five WCHL titles with San Diego before taking over with the IceHogs in 2004-05, and immediately brought his highly-physical, high-octane style to Rockford.
"We played an offensive system, we played a physical system,” said Martinson. “I've always had the same team for 20 years, just different names. But we played the same style."
Martison’s first season with the Hogs saw five different players reach the 20-goal plateau and eight players record 100 or more PIM, including three of the five 20-goal scorers. The key, claims Martinson, is finding players that can be effective physically beyond the ability to drop the gloves.
"A lot of teams in that era had physical guys that were good fighters, but they weren't necessarily hard to play against,” Martinson noted. “We had guys that were tough and could skate and hit. Fighting only intimidates guys that fight. Guys that can hit hard and hit the other team's good players have a much bigger impact on the outcome of the game."
Rockford reached the UHL’s semi-finals in 2004-05 and again in 2005-06, but could not quite get over the hump for their first appearance in the championship round. The 2006-07 season had a less-than-promising start with the IceHogs battling to a 12-12-2 record on Dec. 22. The team then took a 4-2 win over the Flint Generals and found their game, winning 36 of their final 50 games to finish with a 48-21-7 overall record.
A young, hungry roster continued to get better as the season went on, and carried that momentum into the postseason. The IceHogs dispatched rival Quad City four games to one, and then took down the Fort Wayne Komets by the same series score to reach the UHL Finals for the first time.
Once more, it was a classic Steve Martinson roster that gave Rockford a chance to capture the Colonial Cup. That year’s rendition saw four players eclipse 20 goals and nine players had 100 or more PIMs.
The IceHogs earned home-ice advantage in the finals and secured the right to host Game 7 at the BMO Harris Bank Center (then MetroCentre) on May 24, 2007. The home team had captured each of the previous six games, and the IceHogs faithful showed up to the tune of 6,236 fans, each hoping the pattern would hold for just one more night.
“Our crowd was packed…and when that rink was packed and that crowd was loud, that gives you more energy,” Martinson remembered.
The score was tied 1-1 after two periods of play. Then, 6:11 in to the second period, Jason Notermann pursued a rebound and eventually whacked the puck home to give Rockford the last goal they would need to capture the cup.
Martinson recalls Notermann, just as he does many of that championship-winning squad, as a highly competitive player who showed up ready to battle, game-in and game-out.
"Playoffs are usually a grind,” notes Martinson, “and you play the same teams over, and over and over. If you have guys that buy into competing and like that battle philosophy, you will see guys who elevate their game in the playoffs.
"The guys that are that type during the season, they elevate it even more during the playoffs."
The strike by Notermann proved to be the game-winner, and Nicolas Corbeil added insurance with 1:33 to play to secure the Colonial Cup. It was a story book ending for Rockford’s UHL era, as the team moved up and began its American Hockey League tenure the following season.
“It was the last opportunity for us to win in the UHL. We won it the right way, we had a good young team and a bunch of guys that were trying to further their careers,” Martinson said. “We had a fan base that was solid, and it all worked out great.”
Martinson fulfilled his expectations and left his mark on the city by bringing the Colonial Cup to the Forest City - and he did it with a classic Steve Martinson roster full of skill and toughness.
"Ultimately it was the ability to recruit players,” he said. “That's where I had an advantage against some of the other coaches, was that I had a track record of winning."
Martinson is currently coaching the Allen Americans in the ECHL. He won consecutive championships with the squad as a member of the CHL in 2012-13 and 2013-14. The CHL then merged with the ECHL and Martinson posted back-to-back championships in 2014-15 and 2015-16. In 22 years behind the bench, Martinson has won 10 league titles in the WCHL, UHL, CHL, and ECHL.