SPOKANE, Wash. — Friday, March 19th was a day I thought would never arrive. When the Western Hockey League announced the teams in the U.S. Division would resume play after being sidelined for over a year, I had doubts we would see hockey again in Spokane until at least the Fall of 2021.
Then again, when COVID-19 shut down the WHL on March 12, 2020, I had zero clue that the league would be put on the shelf for over a year. It's been a year of frustration for sure as the players, who in the prime of their development, were basically forced to try to find some ice and somehow stay in shape while being unable to play any organized games.
This is just the hockey side of it. There's no measuring the human toll the pandemic has taken on the youngsters who are hoping to make hockey their career. When the WHL started play back in the Central Division in late February, there was finally light at the end of the tunnel. Then it was the East Division's turn March 12, and there was the realization that hockey was finally back for the Chiefs.
While the squad was happy to be coming back, not all of the players who were on the team last year were back. Spokane lost quite a bit on the defensive side of the puck, as Ty Smith, Noah King and Filip Kral all turned professional, while goalie Lukas Parik was playing in the USHL. Forwards Luke Toporowski and Bear Hughes joined Parik in the league in order to get more playing time and help their development.
Those are 6 major players from last year's team that won't be in the lineup for this season's brief 24 game campaign. The Chiefs did get good news as last year's WHL player of the year Adam Beckman was back for probably his final season in Spokane. Joining him were Tampa Bay draft pick Jack Finley and last year's WHL assist leader, Eli Zummack. The team had 7 forwards, 6 defensemen and 2 goalies returning that saw playing time last year, so the Chiefs weren't lacking experience.
What was lacking were the players who saw major minutes as the 2nd and 3rd lines from last season only saw Zummack as a returner. Defensively, the Chiefs were without their top 3 defensemen from last year, but they had two 20 year olds back in Matt Leduc and Bobby Russell as well as Graham Sward, who played top 4 minutes. In goal, backup Campbell Arnold was back to take the role of starter, while Mason Beaupit, who played 4 games in the middle of the season, returned to back up Arnold.
The team underwent extensive testing and got to practice together on the ice for nearly three weeks before heading out on the road to open the season with 3 games in 3 nights from the 19th to the 21st. It was a grueling way to open the year, as the Chiefs were the only team to start their season with a 3 in 3, and having to travel for all of them as well.
If there was any good news to the travel, it was the team was only having to travel between Kent and Everett, about a 45 minute drive North. The team was able to stay in Kent for the 3 days, so the extensive travel was limited between Seattle and Spokane. First up for the Chiefs were the Seattle Thunderbirds on Friday night. Spokane enjoyed good success against the T-Birds last year, winning 5 of 6 meetings, and were hoping to keep up their winning ways in the season opener.
The Chiefs started Arnold in net on the same ice he saw his season end last year when Arnold tore his ACL in his right knee making the save in Spokane's only loss to Seattle during the season. It looked like Spokane was going to continue their winning ways early as Beckman scored on his first shot of the year just 24 seconds into the game to give the Chiefs a quick 1-0 lead.
That advantage would hold through the first as Arnold turned away all 9 Seattle shots. Spokane would pad the margin to 2-0 midway through the second when defenseman Raegan Wiles scored his first career goal and it looked like the Chiefs were starting to take control of the game. Seattle would score on an odd man rush late in the period though and cut the margin to 2-1 after two.
That goal got the Thunderbirds going as they would score 2 goals just 1:05 apart early in the third to take their first lead of the game at 3-2. The Chiefs came back in late in the game though as they got a 2 man advantage on the power play. Eric Atchison tipped in a Beckman shot at 15:58 to even the game at 3 and send it to overtime.
Spokane killed off a Seattle power play in overtime and then had a chance to win it on a Zummack breakaway midway through OT, but T-Bird goalie Thomas Milic made the save to send the contest to a shootout. Seattle scored in both rounds while the Chiefs failed to score and the Thunderbirds came away with a 4-3 shootout victory. As disappointing as the result was, Arnold played well in net in his first action back in over a year. Just a couple of letdowns defensively kept the Chiefs from securing two points instead of one in this contest.
Spokane looked to build on that effort the next night as the club headed North to face the Everett Silvertips. Spokane had gone 0-4 in their visits to Everett last season, including getting shut out two of the three times the Chiefs were blanked all season. Scoring goals are always at a premium against the Tips, and with the top goalie in the league in Dustin Wolf back in net for Everett, it was going to be a challenge on this Saturday.
The game was the season opener for Everett, so the Chiefs were hoping to catch the Silvertips a bit rusty. Spokane went with rookie Mason Beaupit in goal and while looking a bit nervous early, Beaupit turned aside all 7 Everett shots in the first as the two teams were scoreless after one. After putting up just 5 shots offensively in the first, Spokane would outshoot the Silvertips 12-9 in the second, but Everett would score the only goal of the period midway through after a mix up defensively by the Chiefs in their own D zone, and the Tips would take a 1-0 lead into the third.
Everett would score a huge insurance goal 2.5 minutes into the third to go ahead 2-0, and the Silvertips defense did the rest. Spokane managed just 5 shots in the third and for the third time in 5 trips to Everett, the Chiefs were shut out...this time 2-0. Defensively, for game two of the year, the Chiefs played very well defensively. Offensively, the team got away a number of shots, but many of them sailed high and wide of the net.
While Spokane ended up with 22 shots officially, they could have had 35 easily if they had hit the net with some accuracy. More often than not though, if you hold a team to 2 goals on their ice, you'll usually win. It just wasn't to be on this night. There were a lot of positives to take away from Saturday's tilt as the Chiefs headed back down to Kent to face Portland in their home opener on Sunday.
Yes, you read it right. Portland playing in Kent, WA, home of the Thunderbirds, for their 'home' opener. When the season schedule was set in late February, the state of Oregon wasn't allowing any organized team activities indoors due to Covid, so the Winterhawks had nowhere to practice, let alone play a game in the state. The club practiced across the river in Vancouver, WA and their home schedule was set in Kent.
Oregon then eased restrictions in mid-March, so the Winterhawks could now play in their home building, the Memorial Coliseum, but the new COVID protocols didn't take effect until the last weekend of March, so Portland still had to play their home opener in Washington. The Winterhawks had played the night before in Kent against Seattle, and had come away with convincing 4-1 victory. Spokane knew they would have their hands full in their attempt to salvage the final game of the 3 in 3 weekend.
Portland took a 1-0 lead midway through the first on a one timer from Nick Cicek and that lead held through 20 minutes. Spokane had a chance to tie midway through the second on their first power play chance, but a turnover led to a Simon Knak partial breakaway attempt. Defenseman Bobby Russell got back and took down Knak, leading to a penalty on Russell. The penalty became moot though, as on the play, Russell went down to the ice and took out goalie Campbell Arnold in the crease and into the net. Unfortunately, the puck followed the two across the goal line. The officials discussed what happened as a goal wasn't initially signaled. After a brief discussion, a goal was ruled on the play and the Chiefs trailed it 2-0 after Portland's first short handed goal of the season.
Things didn't improve in the third for Spokane as a defensive breakdown led to an open Gabe Klassen scoring just over a minute into the period to put Portland ahead 3-0. The Chiefs finally broke out of their mini scoring drought as Adam Beckman scored his second of the season at 3:27 to cut the lead to 3-1. Spokane then got a power play chance about 4 minutes later to cut the margin to one. Unfortunately, the power play coughed up another turnover, this one leading to a breakaway short handed goal that put Portland back up 4-1. Instead of folding the tents though, the Chiefs stormed right back into the game.
Defenseman Mac Gross scored his first career goal at 13:08 of the third to cut the lead in half at 4-2. Just 1:29 later, Owen MacNeil set up linemate Reed Jacobson for his first of the season and suddenly it was a 4-3 game. Spokane out shoot Portland 16-8 in the third, but could not get the equalizer in the waning minutes. It felt like one of those games that the Chiefs just need a couple more minutes as all of the momentum was on their side. Unfortunately, the result was the third straight loss for Spokane.
While it was a tough start to the season, the Chiefs saw a lot of improvement both offensively and defensively over the weekend. The challenge will be to build on that improvement and get some positive results in the win-loss department. Spokane will get almost a full week to practice this week as they only have two games over the weekend.
The Chiefs will host Seattle in Spokane's home opener on Friday night and then travel to Tri City to face the Americans for the first time on Saturday night. No fans will be allowed in the stands, but you can follow the team over the air on 103.5 FM the Game as I'll have the call both Friday and Saturday. Friday's game will start with the pre-game at 4:30pm and the puck drop at 5:10. Saturday's game from Kennewick will have the pre-game at 5:30pm with the puck drop at 6:05pm. We hope you tune in and see if the Chiefs can get their first win of the season and we hope to see you on the radio!