SPOKANE, Wash. — I know it didn't come to anyone's great surprise in the Spokane hockey community when fans packed the Spokane Arena this past weekend to attend the first game in the history of the Seattle Kraken. After all, fans had only been allowed to attend one hockey game at the Arena since March 10, 2020; and that was a Chiefs pre-season game 4 days before the Kraken's inaugural contest. Hockey is indeed back, and the puck drops on the Chiefs season this weekend when the club will host Tri City and Everett at the Spokane Arena on Saturday and Sunday nights.
It has been one of the shorter breaks between seasons this year, as the COVID-19 pandemic forced a late start to last season from September 2020 to March 2021. The Chiefs were able to get in 21 of their scheduled 24 games before their campaign wrapped up the first weekend of May, but the club did end up losing three games to Covid as Tri City had some players test positive prior to their games with Spokane. The shortened season was not only a chance to say farewell to 20 year olds Eli Zummack, Bobby Russell and Matt Leduc, but also former WHL player of the year, Adam Beckman. The shorter season was also a prime chance to give younger players a chance to adjust to the new roles they will face this year in a Chiefs uniform under head coach Adam Maglio.
Last season, the team went through the growing pains of adjusting to the systems under a new head coach and getting used to playing the new roles they will be doing this year. Spokane dropped their last 5 games to finish 6-10-4-1 for 17 points in their 21 game season, good for 4th place in the U.S. Division. The team was without forwards Jack Finley, who was injured, and Bear Hughes, who played in the U.S. Hockey League to get more game experience. Forward Luke Toporowski missed most of the season in the USHL, but was able to re-join the team for the final 5 games of the year. Spokane also lost goalie Lukas Parik to the USHL, and when you throw in the departures of defensemen Ty Smith, Filip Kral and Noah King, and forwards Leif Mattson and Michael King, there was a lot of holes to fill for the Chiefs heading into last season.
The team played a number of younger players in the abbreviated season, but the most pleasant surprise came with a couple of returners in goal. Campbell Arnold was coming back from a season ending knee injury the year before and despite having less than spectacular numbers, was very good in net with support lacking in front of him most of his outings. Mason Beaupit had struggled a bit in his brief outings the season before, but came out last season and exceeded expectations with some fantastic performances, including a 55 save effort against Seattle in the season finale. Rookie Manny Panghli was a pleasant surprise in net as well, picking up his first career win in his brief appearances. All three return this year for the Chiefs, so goaltending will be a strength for Spokane going forward. The big question is who will establish themselves as the #1 guy? It's a good problem to have though as the Chiefs will have a good pairing manning things between the pipes.
Defensively, the club had a lot of question marks heading into last season. The Chiefs suffered a big blow when top defenseman Graham Sward was lost to an injury in the first week and would not return. The injury cost him a chance at being drafted by the NHL, which will no doubt fuel him going into this year. Raegan Wiles and Mac Gross took major steps towards playing top 4 minutes and will be counted on heavily. Rookies Chase Friedt-Mohr and Logan Cunningham showed enough to lead to the team trading 20 year old defenseman Jordan Chudley to Tri City. 16 year old and 2020 #1 draft pick Sage Weinstein will see playing time as well as import Timafey Kovgoreniya. Newcomers Brayden Crampton and Ben Bonni will fight for time and for making an impression in the early part of the season to make a case to stick on the roster. The competition on the blue line will be fierce, so that should spur the best efforts coming out of the defensive corp this season.
Up front, the Chiefs have a ton of depth, but the biggest question will be scoring, which is never a good problem to have going into a season. Spokane will have proven front liners in Jack Finley, Bear Hughes, Luke Toporowski and Cordell Larson. Blake Swetlikoff had a very good season last year in his first year of play and the club will be looking for him to take the next step this season. Reed Jacobson got off to a quick start last campaign, but faded a bit as the season progressed, so the Chiefs are hoping for him to get back to the first half production he showed last year. Erik Atchison will have to provide big time minutes in his 19 year old season, while Brandon Reller, Ty Cheveldayoff, Copeland Fricker and Grady Lane will all be expected to take the next steps in offensive production on the front lines to keep their playing time. Rookies Kooper Gizowski, Jake Gudelj and Michael Cicek are waiting in the wings to prove what they can do and get time on the ice. Again, the competition will be strong up front, but scoring will be an issue. Hughes led all scorers last year with 24 points in 35 games in the USHL. Jacobson meantime, is the leading scorer that returns from the Chiefs with 12 points in 21 games. Jacobson is one of just 4 players that scored in double figures for the 21 game season, which should be a cause for concern going into this year.
The U.S. Division will be a dog fight once again this year. Over the last 5 years in the WHL, the division has 3 of the top 5 winning teams in Everett, who is first, Portland, who is second, and the Chiefs, who are fifth. The Silvertips and Winterhawks will be the favorites once again this year after finishing 1-2 in the division last season. Seattle will be improved and should push Everett and Portland at the top. The Chiefs and Tri City look to be fighting for the final playoff spot in the division after finishing just 3 points apart in the standings last year. This year will be one for improvement for Spokane, as the team is rebuilding after a very good run from 2016-2020. With Hughes, Toporowski and Larson in their final seasons as 20 year olds, this will be a passing of the torch to the youngsters to hopefully build the next great Chiefs teams.
The season begins for real this weekend as the club will open with back to back games at the Spokane Arena Saturday and Sunday, October 2nd and 3rd. This year will mark a milestone for yours truly as well, as this will be my 20th season calling Chiefs games and I'm just as excited to do so as I was when I started in September of 2002. Saturday's game will drop the puck around 7:15pm after opening night ceremonies, while Sunday's contest will be at 5:05 pm. I'll have the call on 103.5 FM the Game and 1510 AM KGA beginning with the pre-game shows at 6:30 pm Saturday and 4:30 pm Sunday. I'm excited to see fans back at the Arena cheering on the Chiefs and hope to see you at the rink!