SPOKANE, Wash — It's the last Friday of March as I'm typing this. Normally, I'd be in either Portland or Everett getting ready for the Chiefs first game of the Western Hockey League Playoffs. Unfortunately, that's not the case, as the Corona Virus Pandemic has put an end to Spokane's season right as it was taking off for the team. It's been amazing to see how fast the world has been turned upside down over the past two and a half weeks since the Chiefs played their last game. On that Tuesday night of March 10th, Spokane shut out the B.C. Division champion Kamloops Blazers 3-0, in a game that saw the Chiefs final goal of the year scored by goalie Lukas Parik. Parik's goal was not only the first in Chiefs history, but Spokane hockey history. Who knew this landmark event would be the final memory we would take away from this 2019-20 season.
The win over Kamloops was the team's 10th straight, their longest streak in 11 years, and the club had won 16 of 17 to hold the third most points in the Western Conference and 4th most in the entire WHL. With just 4 games left in the regular season, the Chiefs were in prime position to go on the kind of playoff run they had the year before when they made the Western Conference Finals. Now it's become a season of what have been's as the league will not crown a champion for the first time in its' history, nor will there be a Memorial Cup champ for the first time in over a century. It's un-chartered territory for everyone involved, but one thing I'm sure of. It's left an empty feeling for everyone involved in this season of what might have been for the Chiefs.
Expectations were high for Spokane coming into this campaign, as the team returned many of the players that had taken the Chiefs to the West finals last year. The club was ranked in the Canadian Hockey League's Top 10 poll, and the team got off to nice start with a 4-3 win in Kamloops on opening night on 20 year old Jake McGrew's two goals. The Chiefs would go 3-1-1 to start the season, but would take a major hit when McGrew would be lost for the season with a knee injury in the year's 6th game against Everett. Spokane would then meander around the .500 mark for most of the first half of season, as the club fell into third place in the U.S. Division.
The Chiefs would go on a 6 game win streak in December, but would lose two of three heading into the Christmas break. Spokane would also lose defenseman Matt Leduc for the year with a nagging shoulder injury and both goalie Lukas Parik and defenseman Ty Smith to the World Junior Tournament for the next month. The second half to the season didn't start any better as back up goalie Campbell Arnold, who had been stellar in Parik's absence, suffered a season ending knee injury less than 2 minutes into a game at Seattle that the Chiefs would lose 9-5. The team struggled through much of January. playing .500 hockey as they fell double digits back of Portland and Everett in the division race. Things would start to turn around for the Chiefs after picking up a win in Kelowna the last day of January. That victory would jump start the team on a 6 game win streak, capped by an Eli Zummack overtime goal in a win at home over Moose Jaw.
Spokane would lose two nights later on February 14th in Portland, but that would be the last time the club would taste defeat this season. The Chiefs would rebound with a win at Tri City the next night and would launch their 10 game win streak to end the year. The team would see a number of big seasons out of their top players, led by forward Adam Beckman, who became the first Chief to lead the league in scoring since Mitch Holmberg in 2013, as he put up a league high 48 goals and 107 points. Fellow forward Eli Zummack led the league in assists with 64 as he finished the year on a 10 game assist scoring streak. Defenseman Noah King scored a career high 40 points in his 20 year old season and led the league with a +60. Blue line partner, Captain Ty Smith, finished 4th amongst defensemen in scoring despite playing 17 fewer games than the league leader.
The team's forwards had an exceptional year. First liners Jack Finley and Cordel Larson put up career high seasons, scoring 57 and 43 points respectively. Second liners Luke Toporowski and Leif Mattson were huge in the second half, as Toporowski finished 3rd on the team with 60 points and Mattson was 5th with 57. Mattson was acquired at the trade deadline in January, and was a huge addition as he scored 18 of his 23 goals with the Chiefs in just 2 months. He was the perfect compliment for Zummack and Toporowski and made Spokane's second line as good or better than anyone's in the league. Rookie Bear Hughes was excellent in his first season, finishing 7th amongst WHL first year players with 47 points and formed a very good third line with veteran Michael King and newcomer Brad Ginnell, who was also picked up at the trade deadline. When Ginnell missed 3 weeks late in the season with a hip injury, rookie Reed Jacobson stepped up and hit double figures in points for the year. Erik Atchison, Owen MacNeil, and Brandon Reller all made big contributions on the 4th line to help Spokane's forward group perform as well as anyone in the league.
Defensively, Smith and King led a group that improved greatly over the course of the season. Twenty year old Filip Kral, who missed most of the final 3 weeks of the year with a hip injury, was the team's best defenseman in the first half of the year as he was ranked as one of the top 5 scoring defensemen most of the season. Rookie Graham Sward was excellent in his first season, playing top 4 minutes and showing he'll be a top D-man in the league sooner than later. Veteran Bobby Russell, newcomer Jordan Chudley, and rookies Mac Gross and Reagan Wiles all improved as the team did to give the Chiefs a defense corp that could play with any of the top teams in the league. Goalie Lukas Parik was playing his best hockey of the year at the end of the season, capped by his first shutout in the team's final game. Back up James Porter, Jr. was a huge addition at the trade deadline, as the Bonners Ferry, ID native won 8 straight games in net and pitched 2 of the teams 4 shutouts in goal this year. The Chiefs special teams all came on over the final month of the year, finishing 5th in the league on the power play and moving up to 12th on the penalty kill after languishing towards the bottom of the WHL in January.
It's pretty difficult to look ahead to next season as I feel like this season isn't truly over. I know that it is, but it's hard to accept moving on when there was so much ahead for this group moving into the playoffs. Right now, I'd be in my pre-game show and anticipating a great first round series with Portland or Everett. I feel awful for Noah King, Filip Kral, Leif Mattson and Ty Smith, who will never get to don a Chiefs sweater again as they are graduating, or in Smith's case, heading to the NHL or AHL next season. Spokane will have to make decisions with their 19 year olds turning 20 next year, as Eli Zummack, Brad Ginnell, Michael King, Bobby Russell, Matt Leduc, and James Porter will be vying for the 3 spots available. Spokane will once again return a lot of key contributors, as Beckman, Finley and Larson return intact up front. Toporowski and Zummack will more than likely be back as well, while Hughes, MacNeil, Jacobson, Reller and Atchison will all return a year better and wiser. Sward will lead the D-corp back, as Chudley, Gross and Wiles will be counted on to play big minutes in front of Parik, who will be back for his second season. It will be another exciting team returning for next year, but I'll be honest. I'm not looking at next season at all right now. It's hard enough to think about what could have been this year with this great group.