There really isn’t a lot of difference between the Spokane Chiefs’ trek through the Western Hockey League’s East Division last year and their recently concluded tour of the Central Division.
What matters is what happens next.
When it works out, the annual trips are a character builder or team-bonding experience.
A year ago, when the travel came a month sooner in the season, the Chiefs were struggling a bit to adapt to a new coach. But after going 3-2-0-1, Spokane went on a tear and hit the Christmas break with 41 points by picking up a point in 16 of 17 games.
That pace continued to the end of a 102-point season, just the fourth time the Chiefs hit the century mark.
The Chiefs arrived home Monday morning after going 2-2-1-0 in the Central and could have easily won another, considering the last game on Sunday was a 1-0 loss in Lethbridge when Spokane had a 2-to-1 shot advantage and was foiled on two penalty shots.
“We held up pretty well,” coach Don Nachbaur said. “We learned a lot about mental toughness, overcoming fatigue. Some guys were pressed in a lot of areas but really responded well.
“The next step is for our young guys to continue to take steps in the contribution department and more consistency from our old guys.”
If this year’s team responds the same way, they will at least get to the break close to the same spot. Spokane is 13-9-2-2 for 30 points going in Friday’s game at Everett. The first home game in two weeks, the annual Teddy Bear Toss, is Saturday against Prince George, which handed the Chiefs a 5-4 dose of humble pie in their last home game.
There are three games next week before the break, including home games on Wednesday and Saturday.
“Last year we were an older team,” Nachbaur said. “This year I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew it was a tough trip, five games in six nights. All that travel between games was tough, too. I thought we handled that real well.
“Physically we came out of it good. I even had the luxury of sitting out some older guys just for a lesson.”
Nachbaur said the key for his team is have the same mindset every night.
The Chiefs beat a good Medicine Hat team 6-3 with a dominating five-goal third period on Saturday before ending the trip with the disappointing loss to the last-place Hurricanes, who also had a missed penalty shot.
“Part of that was the third game in three nights,” Nachbaur said. “We made some mental mistakes where we didn’t bear down on loose pucks or empty nets … we had some opportunities.
“In Medicine Hat the guys stepped up, the veteran players were outstanding. … We need that every night from the old guys and the young guys have to start chipping in a bit more.”
There isn’t much time to see how the Chiefs respond after the trip and determine what response management should have to that.
General manager Tim Speltz isn’t sure if the Chiefs will be buyers or sellers in the run up to the trade deadline, but he expects to make some deals. Although the deadline is a month away, no deals are allowed during the Christmas break.
“By then, the horse race might be over,” Nachbaur said, looking at Tri-City, 14 points in front of his team. “We’re not racing for first right now. ‘Tri’ is too far ahead. We want to grow as a group and see where it takes it. When we have a good team game, we’re as competitive as any team in the league.”