Not quite a year ago, as Spokane and Tri-City engaged in their slippery debate as to which was the best team in the Western Hockey League, Americans coach Don Nachbaur noted an appreciated evolution in a rivalry now two decades old.
“Now it’s more about skill and passion for the game,” he said.
And not so much the goon-tinged free-for-alls that got the pleasantries started all those years ago.
Well, Saturday night the blood was back.
There may not have been any spilled, but it certainly boiled.
And now the Chiefs are back, too.
Their 5-2 blitz of the Americans in front of 10,538 customers fueled by cheap hotdogs and bare-knuckle thrills was, as Nachbaur pointed out, “one game out of 72” – but it spoke louder than any others played to this point.
Maybe not in words, but in sound effects – not the least of which was the dull thwack of fists colliding with faces.
Let’s see – the first fight stopped the clock three seconds after the second-period faceoff. Then the next faceoff triggered another. Another followed 30 seconds later, and yet another at the next faceoff.
It was if the WHL sanctioned the first and third periods, but sublet the second to UFC.
The Americans, having been badly outplayed in the first 20 minutes, apparently decided to recover some self-respect the old-fashioned way – and then to keep fighting until they actually won one.
“But we’ve been in that position as well,” said Drayson Bowman, who wound up in two separate beefs, “when you don’t come out the way you want to in the first period. They were looking for some jump and usually that stuff happens. It’s good to see our team respond the way we did to them wanting to fight and rough it up a little bit.”
Nachbaur’s response was more of a shrug.
“That’s the rivalry,” he said.
Well, it takes two to rivalry, if we may coin a verb, and dropping the gloves was really the only noteworthy participation the Ams offered. They found themselves behind just 19 seconds into the game on Ondrej Roman’s rebound goal, gave up a silly short-handed goal off Bowman’s steal and then caved in by allowing two ghastly scores in the final 30 seconds of the second period – so all those flying fists went to waste.
“They were skating and we were watching,” Nachbaur conceded. “They were prepared for the big game and we weren’t. They clearly had their hearts in it and we didn’t.”
The big game? So it was a little bigger than just one out of 72, after all.
A swing in the momentum of the season made it so.
Look, they don’t have to feel like the ’64 Phillies just yet, but something’s gaining on the Americans and it’s their good pals from up the road. In the last 17 days, the Chiefs have won eight straight games and whittled Tri-City’s lead in the U.S. Division from 10 points to four. The Ams’ contribution has been four losses in their past six games. And since Spokane has played two fewer games, the Chiefs can now project themselves as having pulled even on paper, at least.
There is no disguising the fact that this run began when the Chiefs’ marquee players began trickling back from the World Junior Championships and other in-season obligations – and when Roman made his choice to leave the men’s league club he was playing for in his native Czech Republic and return to Spokane.
And while he acknowledges that he’s “sure I pissed off a lot of people in Czech,” he’s made just about as many happy here.
“He’s better than anybody we could have gotten in a trade,” Bowman said.
Since his return, Roman has three goals and six assists in seven games. And whether he’s been paired on lines with Bowman or Tyler Johnson or some other teammates, he’s managed to elevate everybody’s game – or, as general manager Tim Speltz suggested not long ago, they’ve elevated their own to keep up.
Almost lost in the hubbub of the winning streak is the fact that two veterans, Justin McCrae and Mike Reddington, have been injured for the duration. Two other regulars, Ryan Letts and Blake Gal, are sitting with an injury and suspension at the moment, as well.
In all, the Chiefs have lost almost twice as many games to player absence than they did all of last season – which makes the prospect of overhauling the Ams all the more delicious.
“It’s exciting to put the whole team on the ice – and we still haven’t been able to completely do that,” Bowman said. “But guys are really starting to find their roles and understand what their job is, and it’s great to see us come together.”
In stretches like this, the games can come quickly enough – and though it’ll be a month before the Chiefs see the Ams again, it’s probably too much to expect a more civil war.
“That’s all right,” Bowman said. “These games are always fun to look forward to, and what happened tonight is just going to add to it.”
Hey, it’s in the blood.