Forward Blake Gal and defenseman Brenden Kichton are key players for whatever success the Spokane Chiefs hope to have when the Western Hockey League season opens next month.
On ice, however, with new coach Don Nachbaur in charge, the two aren’t a whole lot different than the multitude of rookies who make up a majority of the 70 players who were trying to get noticed as training camp opened Thursday at the Arena.
“It’s almost like it’s your first year, you need to prove yourself, establish yourself,” Gal said. “The intensity in this camp will be greater with Don coming in. People need to show him what they have. He’s going to give a lot of people an opportunity to have bigger roles.
“It’s a little intimidating but mostly I’m excited. I see more of a challenge for myself to be better, show what I have and be the best I can be.”
Gal had 11 goals and 36 points last season, making him the No. 3 returning scorer behind 20-year-olds Tyler Johnson and Levko Koper. Kichton checks in as the most offensive defenseman – pending the return of captain Jared Cowen from the Ottawa Senators – with four goals and 15 assists.
“Two guys, for me, we’ve always felt were capable, are Brenden Kichton and Blake Gal,” general manager Tim Speltz said when asked which players might make the biggest splash at camp. “Now they’re 18, it’s their time to dominate the game and play on a consistent basis.”
Knowing they would be counted on to fill bigger roles, but that their pasts wouldn’t count much in the evaluations, spurred both in their offseason workouts, though both said the most important step to help the team is as a leader.
“The summer went by fast,” Kichton said. “When you’re working hard, you’re anxious to get back and show what you’ve done, prove to the new coach you’re a player and he can rely on you. … When you’re the guy you have to be the leader.”
Both have pegged what Nachbaur is looking for.
“Discipline and hard work take you a long way in sports,” Nachbaur said. “Veterans are the keys to that. … The details of the game are passed along and holding each other accountable. We all have to be receptive to that.”
And if they don’t?
“Any time a player or person gets comfortable in his job, somebody passes him and takes that job,” the coach said. “That’s life, those are life skills you learn. It’s not going to make us a better team by coming and not earning your right to make the team. All I’m asking for is the guys to earn the right to wear the jersey. If they do that, we’ll be a pretty darn good team.”
He wasn’t talking about Gal and Kichton in particular because 17 players return from last year’s team that won almost twice as many games as it lost before getting eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.
“I don’t want to speak about individuals,” Nachbaur said. “I think any guy that’s played in the Western Hockey League has experience. Those guys have to pass along their knowledge to the young guys. … The guys that have graduated passed that torch to these guys and they have to accept that torch. We’ll find out which (ones) step up to take that responsibility.
“The cream always rises to the top in leadership.”
Gal and Kichton both have a sense of what they need to contribute.
“I see myself as the go-to D-man, that offensive guy who provides the points on the back end, the power-play guy, but also be a leader,” said Kichton, who is listed at 5-foot-11, 185 pounds, a big physical improvement from last year. “If I show that I’m a hard worker, have a good work ethic, everything will work out.”
Gal said he has added 8 pounds of muscle, checking in a 6 feet, 190 pounds.
“I need to step up offensively and lead by example,” he said. “I’d like at least 25 goals, 50 points. I think the biggest thing for me to reach those goals is working hard.”
Though there are big holes to fill and outside expectations are down, both vets aren’t conceding anything.
“We have a lot of young guys that have legs, they’re fast out there,” Kichton said. “If we can use that I think we’ll surprise teams and be a playoff contender … especially with Don coaching us. He’s got discipline right where we need it to be. He expects hard work and dedication.”
Gal added: “Being the underdog you have to work harder for everything. We can go out there with nothing to lose with other teams having lots of expectations.”