Three o’clock can’t come soon enough today for the Spokane Chiefs.
That’s the drop-dead for trades in the Western Hockey League, and the cue that the psychosis that seems to invade a junior team’s dressing room for the better part of a month can finally be escorted out.
The sanctity of the regular season is pretty much a punch line in the teenage game. In Greek lore, wars used to stop for the Olympics; now the National Hockey League does. But down in junior, the best players scatter to different world tournament destinations – five Chiefs were so honored this year – and the beat goes on while everyone stews about who’s gone.
Then as the trade deadline approaches, players can stress out over the likelihood of relocation and hyper themselves into a dither over who might be delivered.
Eventually, the Chiefs are going to have to deal with who’s actually here.
And get them to play better.
They took a solid step in that direction Saturday night, outlasting the rival Tri-City Americans 2-1 at the Spokane Arena and moving on down the road so figure skating can move in for two weeks. By way of thanks, perhaps Sasha Cohen can do her free skate to a Tarantella.
Spokane’s next eight games are on hostile ice, which wouldn’t seem to be the best tonic for a team that had lost seven of its last nine and needed this win to crawl back into third place. But general manager Tim Speltz disagreed.
“It’s not going to hurt our group at all,” he said, “to get on the road and get back together.”
Odd, that. For some reason, the Chiefs have played markedly better away from the Arena this season, though there doesn’t seem to be any ingratitude. They capped Saturday’s victory with a mid-ice salute to the season’s first sellout crowd – 10,522 – which rose to the occasion in the third period as much as the team did.
The assumption is that with all their parts re-assembled, the Chiefs can return to the form that carried them to a 14-3 record over a six-week stretch before the travel agent butted in. That was reinforced in part Saturday when Tyler Johnson – back from the world championships with a gold medal – backhanded in one goal and made a sensational pass to Jared Spurgeon for the winner, though he appeared barely able to walk from the battering he took at the tournament in Saskatoon.
But possibly as critical is whether the Chiefs can revive the season of their captain, Jared Cowen, on the back end.
It may simply be because Cowen was so riveting – and dominant – as a 16-year-old and before he ripped up a knee last January that his current season seems ordinary, but it’s nonetheless true that without him playing at a higher level Spokane’s postseason prospects seem limited.
It’s un-Chiefly to direct too much scrutiny on any one player – even a first-round NHL draft pick – and Cowen can hardly be held responsible for the club’s recent belly flop. But judgments even more cruel went down in Saskatoon, where he was slotted as Canada’s seventh defenseman and saw his ice time curtailed – to the point that he suited but didn’t play in the host team’s penultimate game.
“They never told me I wasn’t going to play, so I wasn’t very happy about that,” said Cowen, who felt the sting further because his hometown is maybe 40 miles away.
“I just felt shaky – I never got a lot of minutes after camp started and never felt like I could get a rhythm going in game play. There were guys who had played before and I guess they kind of earned the right to play more. There really wasn’t much I could do about it.”
Surely it was a puzzle to Speltz.
“What I know about Jared here is that he’s been a horse for minutes,” Speltz said. “Not every shift is perfect, but he needs to play minutes.”
Has there been too much expected of him – especially given his accelerated return from surgery and that knee he acknowledges “won’t be 100 percent for a long time?”
“Not from us,” Speltz insisted. “Nobody’s more accountable than Jared with his own game – you don’t have to tell him if he has a bad shift.
“He’s set the bar high. His 16-year-old year we never imagined he could play as much as he played and dominate, but I still think his best hockey as a Chief is in front of him this year.”
That probably can’t come soon enough for the Chiefs, either.