From the first time Mitch Wahl tied the laces at the age of 5, he was a natural on skates. Now, almost 15 years later, that natural ability is on display as his Western Hockey League career is down to 10 games and playoffs.
“I’ve tried to put everything aside and I’m just looking to get as many wins as I can,” Wahl said. “Being a veteran … I’m just trying to step up.”
It’s a little more than just stepping up as Wahl has put himself in the thick of the league scoring race and, with 10 games left, the Chiefs are jockeying for a high playoff seed.
The Chiefs have won nine of 10 February games, including the last seven, heading into tonight’s critical matchup with Everett at the Arena. Wahl has points in all 10, including 17 assists, to move into sixth in the scoring race with 83 points.
Wahl’s 56 assists rank third in the league and have given him 176 for his four seasons, putting him third behind Ray Whitney (207) and Pat Falloon (194) on the Spokane career list.
“I’ve always had more assists than goals,” Wahl said, who is seventh on the Chiefs’ career points list with 271. “I seem to draw players to me and find the open man. I can score goals, I’ve proven that, but the way I’ll be successful is to pass.”
Wahl has taken that to a new level down the stretch, especially with winger Kyle Beach, who just had an 11-game point streak with 16 goals and eight assists snapped.
“He’s so smart, he sees the ice so well,” said Beach, who leads the league with 46 goals. “Anytime I call for the puck, he generally can put it there. He has enough skill he can make his own opportunities and bury the puck. (That) pulls the defenders toward him when he has the puck, which leaves me to find a spot open and he has enough skill to find me.
“He’s just an extremely hard player who works hard night in and night out.”
That’s what Chiefs coach Hardy Sauter has noticed.
“As a 17- and 18-year-old, it was just his skill level was very, very high,” he said. “Up until even a month ago he was still living on skill. The last month or so he has maybe been our hardest worker, or one of. When you mix that in with skill you get great results.”
That certainly goes against the stereotype of Wahl’s background.
Wahl is from Seal Beach, Calif., in Orange County, south of Los Angeles.
His skating debut came at his older sister’s birthday party.
“He could just skate,” said mother Michele. “We took it from there, took him to skating classes, put him on a little team down there and that’s where it started.”
“When you’re a young kid it’s pretty fascinating,” Wahl said. “It’s a cool sport, a fast-paced game, a lot of action up and down. It’s a lot fun to watch and fun to play.
“It was good timing for me. Hockey developed down there when Wayne Gretzky was traded to Kings in 1988. I was born in ’90 and an organization (the California Waves) opened by my house.”
Once Wahl became immersed in hockey, most of the traditional sports fell by the wayside, including his spot on his high school surf team.
“It’s hard to jam them all together, so I had to pick one,” he said. “I loved the sport of hockey, so I stuck with that.”
As Wahl made his way up the ranks, they began researching his options.
“We spent a lot of time trying to figure out which way we wanted to go,” Michele said. “We made the decision before he was drafted. We knew who was interested in him and to get drafted in the first round he had to make a commitment to come.
“We preferred the U.S. teams. Back then all these Canadian teams seemed so far away.”
“That was good enough for us,” Chiefs general manager Tim Speltz said. “He was our No. 1 guy then.”
The Chiefs took Wahl in the first round, fourth overall, of the 2005 bantam draft.
“Mitch was exceptional,” said Speltz, who called him an easy find because of all the tournaments in Canada. “He had a high, high level of skill but also a high, high level of battle and compete. That’s what set him apart.”
Once Wahl made the Chiefs as a 16-year-old, the family bought a house in Spokane and Michelle moved north. His dad, Big Mitch, who is a concrete contractor, stayed in Southern California.
“All kids have dreams,” Michele said. “We tried to do the best we could, so he could be in the best position to be the best he could be.”
Wahl said having his mother here has been a blessing, for him as well as the players who have stayed with them.
“I’ve been real fortunate, my family has been real dedicated to me,” he said. “She’s a good mom, she’s a cool mom. She treats us so well.”
Wahl was Spokane’s Rookie of the Year with 16 goals and 32 assists. Then it was 73 points (53 assists) as a 17-year-old, plus 14 points in the 21 games it took for the Chiefs to win the Memorial Cup in 2008. Following the Memorial Cup, he was taken as the second-round pick of the Calgary Flames, 48th overall, in the NHL draft.
Two games into this season the Chiefs traded for Beach, a 2008 first-round pick of the Chicago Blackhawks, and matched him up with Wahl.
“We’ve been good all year but we haven’t been great,” Beach said. “We want to be great, we want to win. We’ve had chemistry all year, but now we’re used to each other.”
Sauter said there might be a bit more to Wahl’s play down the stretch.
“I think it’s more to do with the Chiefs. I think he’s just proud to be a Chief – there’s a place for the organization in his heart,” Sauter said. “Right now he’s just playing for the Spokane Chiefs and playing very, very hard.”
This is probably Wahl’s swan song since he signed with the Flames in October, but it’s hard to say who is going to miss Spokane the most.
“This is my fourth season and I do have a lot of friends, quite a few close friends, I’m going to miss when it’s time to go,” Michele said. “I’m OK with leaving the winters, but I’ve definitely grown to like Spokane and the people of Spokane. Mitchell’s going to miss the organization. He loves Spokane as well.”