There’s never been anything quite like it here.
The championship of major junior hockey will be settled in Spokane, when the best from the three leagues of Canadian hockey join the Spokane Chiefs in pursuit of the Memorial Cup.
For nine days in May, junior hockey’s Final Four will command a receptive TV audience throughout Canada.
As the host team, the Chiefs knew their fate before the first puck was dropped in the exhibition season. When the four-team Memorial Cup tournament starts in the Arena on May 9, the Chiefs are in no matter how well or how poorly they play along the way.
When nothing really counts until May, how will the club respond through 72 regular-season games and the playoffs?
It’s a different challenge for coach Mike Babcock, who starts his fourth season behind the bench Saturday night in the Arena when the Chiefs take on the Tri-City Americans.
Babcock and new assistant Mike Pelino have their work cut out for them in a year when a third-place finish in the Western Hockey League West Division might be as high as the Chiefs can realistically expect.
Babcock demands an effort every shift, every game, from every player. By the time he and GM Tim Speltz are through tinkering with the roster between now and the late-January trade deadline, this team could look quite different from its opening roster.
It’s a fine line that separates the need to upgrade from the threat of trading away the future for the sake of one year. But, because the future is now, the club can’t afford to sit tight.
That was apparent this week when veteran center/right wing John Cirjak was sent to Regina to complete the deal for defenseman Perry Johnson. The Chiefs sacrificed a proven scorer for a versatile D man who can quarterback the power play from the back end.
Ranging in age from 15 (Mark Forth turns 16 on Sunday, Cole Fischer is 16 on Dec. 23) to 20, with experiences as varied as their birthdays, the Chiefs remain a tremendously popular enterprise. They drew 260,378 in 36 regular-season dates in ‘95-96. Attendance jumped to 285,743 last year. Ticket packages were going at a record pace through the summer.
Will fans see the Chiefs go through the motions and turn up the heat come spring, or will they see a team that actually plays better, secure and relaxed through the season with that free pass to the Memorial Cup?
That, of course, is why they play the games.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo