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Behind Enemy Lines Berry Likes Arena Home, Faces Ex-Teammates

This is a big night for Rick Berry.

The Seattle Thunderbirds - the guys he went to the wall for for 2-1/2 years - are in town.

The puck takes some strange bounces in the long stretch of a hockey career, and the strangest so far for Berry - the Spokane Chiefs recently acquired 19-year-old defenseman - came a month ago.

He expected a shakeup in Seattle. The T-Birds were in a stall. Yet at the Jan. 23 Western Hockey League deadline he’d heard nothing but rumors. His bags were packed and on the Thunderbirds’ bus before the commute that night to Portland and a game with the Winter Hawks when word came down.

Everybody off the bus.

Seattle general manager Russ Farwell had swung four separate deals at the 11th hour.

Among them was the trade that sent Berry to Spokane.

“We got called back for a meeting,” Berry said Thursday. “A couple guys got called into the office. They were traded. A couple more guys went in. I got called.”

Seven players were headed out.

“We had to go back on the bus and take all our stuff off,” Berry said. “That was the hard part. You had to face your friends, knowing it would be the last time you might see someone.”

Until tonight.

Tonight, he tackles guys “I know like the back of my hand.”

Chris Thompson, the league leader in penalty minutes, for starters. Berry and Thompson were “buddies going back to our first training camp in Seattle. We were roommates. We both made the team that year. We lived right across the street. Went to high school together. We grew up there together.”

Tonight, old friends become new opponents.

As tight friendships go, this one “might be tough at times,” Berry acknowledges.

“It’ll be different,” he said. “I just hope I don’t put a pass on the wrong stick.”

One night he’s on the Seattle bus. The very next night he’s in a Chiefs sweater.

But hockey players grow up fast. Roots never grow too deep. Berry knows that even if he did miss Seattle and his ex-teammates he doesn’t have time to dwell on it.

“We have to jell right away,” he says of the Chiefs, who’ve gone through a facelift of their own since the start of the season. “We want to have a good playoff run so we can be rolling right up to the Memorial Cup.”

Looking back, Berry said, it was time for a fresh start.

The experience of bumping into excomrades started Wednesday night, when Brad Swanson was here with the Kelowna Rockets. Best friends Berry and Swanson were paired on the back end in Seattle last year, before Swanson was traded to Prince Albert.

Berry says he’s finding advantages here as he adjusts.

First, he joined a team that will play for the Memorial Cup. “A chance of a lifetime,” he calls it.

Now he doesn’t have to sweat Trent Whitfield and Greg Leeb. (“I hated playing against Whitter and Leebo because they forechecked so hard,” he says).

And the fans, well, he’ll endear himself to the ones he’ll meet in the short time he has here with comments like:

“Spokane is a better hockey town than Seattle. The fans here know the game. In Seattle, they come to have a couple of bubblies and have some fun.”

Nothing wrong with that, he says, but he appreciates the fan who can appreciate him, a defenseman with good acceleration and a physical edge.

Berry, who has signed with the Colorado Avalanche of the NHL, expects to light somewhere in the Colorado chain next year at 20.

He brings an intelligence and energy both to the dressing room and to the game, Chiefs coach Mike Babcock said.

“Hopefully, I liven up the dressing room, add spark on the ice, and jam and that,” Berry said. “Just play a physical game, make some big hits, get some guys going.

“When I first came here I thought it was really quiet (in the Chiefs’ dressing room). I think that’s turned around some. People are talking more.”

The smudge on his junior career was an eight-game suspension earlier this season stemming from a bizarre incident with the Tri-City Americans. Berry was on the power-play unit that had been burned by a Tri-City short-handed goal, aided by what he said was a referee’s mistake.

Berry was skating past the Americans bench when Tri-City’s Chris Anderson squirted water at him. Berry snapped, swung his stick into the bench, caught Anderson in the face and broke his jaw.

“I was steaming,” he said. “The ref missed an obvious two-line pass. I was going back to the bench and the guy squirts the water. I didn’t think I’d hit anybody. It was just a reaction.

“I was totally shocked when I did it. I can’t see myself ever doing anything like it again. I was surprised that he was hurt.”

The suspension, combined with the holiday break, put Berry out of action from Nov. 30 to Dec. 30.

It wasn’t a vacation.

“They had me on double workouts,” he said. “I was doing an acceleration program on the treadmill. I took karate. I did the normal practices and the workout program as well.”

It left him a tougher 6-2, 195.

It’s difficult to connect this kid with the easy laugh and infectious grin with the Tri-City slasher.

“It’s an intense, emotional game,” Chiefs GM Tim Speltz said. “Sometimes you do things that aren’t typical.”

It didn’t stop Speltz from sending promising left wing Justin Ossachuk to Seattle for Berry, who “doesn’t have to be the guy who leads us to the promised land,” Speltz said. “He just has to be himself, one of the guys who helps.”

Berry grew up on a combination horse and cattle ranch near the hamlet of Birtle, Manitoba (pop. 850), about 100 miles northwest of Brandon near the Saskatchewan border.

His parents, Robert and Gerrie, maintain about 60 head of cattle and 150 horses.

“If I couldn’t play hockey, if I had to go to school tomorrow, I’d go to be a veterinarian,” he said.

For now, he doesn’t have to go to school. The game, for now, is his present and future.

“How can I complain?” he said. “You’re not expected to get a job. You’ve got no bills. We play hockey. Other than that, it’s just hang out with the guys.

“We could be college students with a job, trying to pay off a student loan. That sounds a lot tougher than this.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: ON ICE Today: Seattle at Spokane, 7:05 p.m.

This sidebar appeared with the story: ON ICE Today: Seattle at Spokane, 7:05 p.m.

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