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WHL turns out another prospect

Sat., Aug. 2, 2008

So here’s something else the Spokane hockey fan can blame on Kyle Beach.

You know him as the player voted Most Likely to Get Under Everyone’s Skin. But the Everett Silvertips center is also a pretty fair prospect – better than that, actually, since the Chicago Blackhawks made him the 11th choice in the first round of the National Hockey League draft.

Which meant Blackhawks general manager Dale Tallon had to come west to scout him. Which happened to be when the Spokane Chiefs were dispatching the Silvertips in a first-round sweep in the WHL playoffs.

Which was Tallon’s first glimpse at another prospect – Chiefs coach Bill Peters.

And on Friday, he was drafted, too.

You know what they say about the WHL – it’s a developmental league.

In this case, the development was late, sudden and surprising, the Blackhawks swooping in and in the space of four days hiring Peters to be the head coach of their American Hockey League affiliate in Rockford, Ill. – the IceHogs.

“It’s just a great, great opportunity for me,” Peters said by phone from Calgary, Alberta, where he launched training camp Friday for Canada’s U-18 national team, “and it wouldn’t have been possible without the success we were able to have in Spokane.”

Or in Kitchener, Ontario, where in May Peters steered the Chiefs to their second Memorial Cup – and cemented whatever impression he’d first made on Tallon, who like most NHL GMs was in attendance.

“Ironically, I introduced Bill to Dale in the airport in Ottawa when we were leaving,” Speltz said. “He’d come over and was very complimentary – ‘Congratulations, what a year, I’m very impressed with your team.’ And I said, ‘Do you know Bill Peters?’ ”

So in that narrow context, Speltz has only himself to blame for having to find a new head coach for the reigning best junior hockey team on the continent three weeks before training camp. That’s one reason why assistant Hardy Sauter is the likely successor, but by no means the primary reason.

“When we had the kind of year we had, quite frankly, there’s not a lot of reason to change,” Speltz said. “When Bill got his opportunity here, we wanted a fresh start.”

Indeed, so desperate were the Chiefs back in 2005 that they hired a guy whose head coaching experience amounted to three years at the University of Lethbridge and 71 losses in 107 games.

It seemed either like outside-the-box thinking – or inside-the-pine-box thinking.

Of course, we know how it turned out.

Peters brought some of the hard-nosed approach that he saw produce results in Spokane for his old boss, Mike Babcock, who won some trophy or another himself this spring in Detroit. But he also brought his own unique passion, candor and humor. He had a way with players – whether clearing out the me-firsters who needed clearing out, putting a new shine on the overlooked and discarded or making sure his stars stayed in orbit around the team and not the other way around.

It’ll be a little different in Rockford.

“They’re men and they’re pros,” Peters said, “but it’s still my job to help them reach their goals.”

And if Peters’ WHL apprenticeship is half of what Babcock’s was before he made his jump, Speltz believes his man is ready.

Inexperienced as he was when he became Spokane’s head coach, Peters was fortunate to get ex-Chief and NHLer Kevin Sawyer as his assistant, providing a player’s perspective Peters didn’t have. When Sawyer left, he was replaced by Steve Pleau, an AHL assistant and head coach for eight years who had been left without a chair when the coaching music stopped.

“To me, that was almost the defining time for Bill,” Speltz said. “He was confident enough in himself to hire someone who was arguably more qualified than he was. I had guys call me and say, ‘Are you crazy? What does Peters think?’ But I wasn’t trying to bring in Bill’s successor. He wanted the best guy available.”

He’ll have support in a different way in Rockford – from above. Tallon and the Blackhawks’ staff will be in close contact. And in a hiring 24 hours earlier that made a slightly bigger splash than Peters, the Blackhawks lured NHL Hall of Famer Scotty Bowman – whose name is on the Stanley Cup 11 times – to be a senior advisor.

And the Chiefs? Well, they’ll move on.

“It’s happens when you have success,” Speltz said. “We have three overage players who will have opportunities to go to pro camps. Drayson Bowman just signed (with Carolina) and he’ll get a long look. Every returning player is a champion now. And now there’s a coaching change.

“But what we proved last year is how important building a foundation in the regular season is. I know how many playoff series Bill Peters had won as a head coach up to the start of last year’s playoffs. But having that experience is not that important if you have a good foundation to build on.”

Bill Peters helped build it – and built himself into a prospect in the process.


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