SPOKANE, Wash. — When the Western Hockey League announced they were going to indeed have a season in 2021 despite the COVID-19 outbreak, I along with every hockey fan was just glad to have the boys back on the ice.
It had been just over a year since the 2019 campaign had been cut short, and any hockey of any kind was welcome. The Chiefs and the rest of the U.S. Division started in mid-March knowing they had just 24 games to wrap up a junior hockey career, catch the eye of the coaches for next season, or make the development in their games heading into next year. There are no playoffs, no league titles to be won, but each division would crown a champion in this abbreviated season. Everett had wrapped up the title after beating the Chiefs in overtime last Sunday, so the final week of the season would be one of team and personal improvement for Spokane.
The Chiefs began their final week by wrapping up their home season by hosting division rival Tri City on Tuesday night. The Americans took the early lead just 5:46 into the game to go up 1-0. Spokane had a disturbing trend of falling behind early in games throughout this season, something that can definitely be worked on and improved heading into next year. Leading scorer Adam Beckman would get the Chiefs back in it with his 16th of the year midway through the period to tie the game at one. Defenseman Graham Sward notched his first goal of the year just under two minutes later and Spokane grabbed their first lead at 2-1. Tri City would counter on the power play two minutes later though and the game headed to the third tied at two.
The Chiefs would regain the lead on Luke Toporowski's first goal since rejoining the club last week and Spokane held a 3-2 lead midway through the third. The Chiefs only held the lead for 3 minutes though as the Americans leading scorer Samuel Huo put home a net front feed to even up the contest at three and send the game to overtime. Spokane ended up playing 6 OT games this season, double what any other team in the division did. Unfortunately for the Chiefs, overtime was not their friend this year...nor was it on this night, as Huo scored his second straight goal just 23 seconds into the extra frame to give Tri a 4-3 victory and hand the Chiefs their second straight overtime defeat. Spokane would finish just 1-4 in overtime this season and 0-1 in shootouts, earning just 7 of a possible 12 points in extra time this year. The loss also meant the Chiefs lost the season series to the Americans as Tri captured the rubber game of the two clubs five meetings.
Now Spokane would finish off the year the same way they began as they hit the road to play three games in three nights over on the West Side of the state and in Oregon. The Chiefs didn't fare so well at the start of the season as they only earned one point with a shootout loss in Seattle and had regulation losses to Everett and Portland. This trip would start in Everett against the U.S. Division champions as Spokane hoped for their second straight win in the Silvertips barn. The teams would play an even first period but the Tips broke through with a goal in the final 17 seconds of the period to go up 1-0 after 20 minutes. Everett extended the lead to 2-0 just over 4 minutes into the second, but Spokane bounced right back as captain Eli Zummack scored a power play goal to cut the lead in half at 2-1. The Chiefs broke down defensively on the very next shift though and the Silvertips scored 54 seconds after Zummack's goal to take a 3-1 lead and kill any Chiefs momentum going forward.
Everett would score a power play goal just under 6 minutes later to go up 4-1 and then wrapped up the game with a goal less than 3 minutes into the third to seal a 5-1 victory and celebrate their U.S. Division crown with a trophy presentation after the game. The Chiefs were outclassed offensively as they were outshot 45-15 overall, including an astounding 34-12 over the final 2 periods. The hope was the team would bounce back the next night against a Portland team they had beaten in overtime the last time the two clubs had played in the Rose City. It would become apparent early in the matchup with Portland though that the malaise that had plagued the team offensively followed the Chiefs down I-5 South.
Portland would strike twice in the first period as they outshot the Chiefs 11-4 in the opening 20 minutes. The Winterhawks Gabe Klassen scored his second straight goal midway through the second as the Hawks out chanced the Chiefs 13-5 to take a 3-0 advantage into the third. Spokane would finally find the scoreboard as Adam Beckman scored his 17th of the year on the power play 3:35 into the third to cut the Portland lead to 3-1. Instead of building on that goal though, the Chiefs saw the Winterhawks take back the game as they scored a power play tally midway through the period to go ahead 4-1. Klassen would then cap his first hat trick and a Portland win with a goal in the final 40 seconds to wrap up a second straight 5-1 defeat for the Chiefs. Spokane was out shot 37-18 despite having 7 power play chances to just 2 for Portland. The loss, coupled with a Seattle win enabled the Thunderbirds to take a 2 point lead over the Chiefs for third in the division, forcing Spokane to win its' final game of the year against Seattle the next night in Kent.
The Chiefs were out shot 14-9 in the first period, but goalie Mason Beaupit kept the Thunderbirds off the scoreboard as the two teams were scoreless after one. Any hopes of a strong finish for Spokane to the game and the season were dispelled in the second as the Chiefs may have played one of their worst periods of the season. Seattle dominated the middle frame, outshooting Spokane 24-5. The Thunderbirds ended the first period on the power play and began the second with the man advantage and would score just 33 seconds into the second to go ahead 1-0. It was all downhill for Spokane the rest of the period as the T-Birds would get two goals from 4th line fowards, one on the power play, to take control of the game at 3-0 after two. A quick start to the third would get Spokane back into the game, but that was not the case as Seattle out shot the Chiefs 20-7 in the third to end up outshooting Spokane 58-21 in the game. The last suspense to the game was Beaupit getting into a scrap with Seattle goalie Jackson Berry with 30 seconds left in the contest. Beaupit was the lone bright spot to the night, as he turned aside an amazing 55 Seattle shots for a career high.
Spokane ended the season with a thud, losing their last five games, and their last three by a combined score of 13-2. It wasn't exactly the way the team's 20 year olds were seeing their junior hockey careers end. Eli Zummack, Matt Leduc and Bobby Russell will now graduate as their Chiefs careers come to a close. Nineteen year old Adam Beckman has also played his last game as a Chief, as he will be in the American Hockey League next year for the Minnesota Wild playing in Iowa. That leaves three of this season's 19 year olds returning for next season; forwards Cordel Larson and Luke Toporowski and defenseman Jordan Chudley. The club will have a lot of key 18 year olds that will be back in the fall starting their 19 year old campaigns, led by goalie Campbell Arnold. Forwards Erik Atchison, Reed Jacobson and Jack Finley will join Larson and Toporowski leading the way up front for Spokane. Bear Hughes will also be back after playing in the USHL throughout the abbreviated 2021 season. A number of other young forwards are back this fall including Owen MacNeil, Copeland Fricker, Ben Thornton, Grady Lane and Brandon Reller, all of whom saw extensive playing time in the 2021 season and picked up invaluable experience. Here's hoping that group continues to taking steps in their games next fall to give Spokane a very deep forward corp.
The defensive group will be young as Mac Gross and Raegan Wiles will be the only 19 year olds on the blue line. Graham Sward is one of two 18 year olds as well as Chase Friedt-Mohr. Logan Cunningham and Sage Weinstein will also be back after picking up some very valuable experience on the back end. Goalies Mason Beaupit and Manny Panghli will also be back, competing with Arnold for the two goalie spots on the roster. All three have shown the ability to play well so the future between the pipes is bright for the Chiefs. The defense will be a question mark for Spokane, particularly the way the season ended for the team, but I'm excited to see who steps up to take their games to the level needed to get the Chiefs competing for the top of the division and conference.
Right now camp is slated to begin in early September, with pre-season games taking place through the month of September. The regular season is set for the opening weekend of October with the season ending around the first of April. It should be a full 68 game season, with travel to Canada, but there still looms the possibility of things being curtailed if Covid rears its' ugly head into the fall. I'm just hoping people get vaccinated and knock this deadly virus to the curb so we can get back to traveling, playing and enjoying the game of hockey in the seats the way we did until March of 2020. Here's to a safe summer and we'll see you at the rink in October!