The Spokane Chiefs had a chance to practice outdoors Thursday in preparation for today’s historic Western Hockey League game with the Kootenay Ice at Avista Stadium.
Judging by the way the players reacted to being outdoors, that could be a good thing.
The goalies wore Chiefs stocking hats attached to their masks. Darren Kramer was using his hockey stick trying to bat snowballs thrown by owner Bobby Brett.
“It was a little warm,” forward Levko Koper said of the mid-40s, sunny afternoon. “Hopefully, there’s no sun for Saturday, no glare on the ice. There were little puddles here and there, but nothing you can’t play through. You can’t expect perfect conditions playing outside. It’s pretty good ice.
“I’d play through anything just to play a game outdoors. It’s going to be a lot of fun. It’s not going to be perfect, but in the end it’s going to be worth it for the story to tell you played in the first-ever WHL game outdoors.”
Koper was sporting a Van Dyke, created with eye black. He wasn’t the only one. Kramer had a full beard, Brady Brassart a handle-bar mustache, Collin Vanscourt a Fu Manchu and Marek Kalus some sort of cat whiskers thing going on with his eyes.
“It’s pretty exciting,” captain Jared Cowen said. “I’m glad we got out here for our first skate. We’re going to have an advantage over Kootenay. Hopefully, it goes well and the weather cooperates.”
It should be in the low 40s for the 1 p.m. faceoff with a 30 percent chance of rain, which is preferable to a glaring sun.
“You definitely can (lose a puck in the sun),” goalie James Reid said. “I really have to focus on the puck even more. That’s was the only issue, the sun. In the end the ice got a little chippy, but that doesn’t bother me too much.”
Spokane coach Don Nachbaur was part of an outdoor game last season when he was coaching in Binghamton, N.Y., of the American Hockey League.
“I don’t want to give away the secrets,” he said. “There are going to be different things happen such as the ice, the elements. The ice is going to get rugged. You’re going to see some pucks that would normally be executed. You’re going to see some broken plays. The team that’s most prepared for that is going to have the most success.”
Playing Kootenay (29-12-1-2, 61 points), leader of the Central Division, should help the red-hot Chiefs (25-11-3-2, 55) avoid distractions. The teams played Friday night in Cranbrook, B.C., with Kootenay winning 6-2.
“You definitely don’t want to take a shift off or a night off, or they’ll make us pay for it,” Chiefs forward Tyler Johnson said. “Playing against them is going to make this even a better game.”
That should make it easier to concentrate on the task at hand.
“It’s an important game,” Koper said. “There are going to lots of fans, cameras everywhere. It just makes everything more fun.”
“The main thing I have to focus on is (not losing focus),” Reid said. “Stick to my game and focus on myself and what I have to do. It will be exciting, but at the same time I have to get focused.”
Johnson, who is from Liberty Lake and has attended many baseball games at Avista, is amazed.
“It looks really different,” he said. “It looks like a baseball field, but at the same time I can’t imagine playing baseball right now. It’s definitely a once-a-in-lifetime experience. I’m really thrilled we’re part of it. … We’ve been waiting for this all year. We’re just cherishing the moment.”
When the game was announced in August, it seemed like a good distraction in the midst of a long season. But with the Chiefs riding a seven-game winning streak, it could be an unwanted distraction.
“The coaching staff has done a very good job keeping everybody focused on the task at hand,” general manager Tim Speltz said. “It obviously didn’t affect us (Wednesday in Portland) where it could have.
“It’s one of the exciting things the guys have looked forward to. Could there be a lull after it? That’s maybe what I’d be more worried about, the lull after it. Those are two real important games Sunday and Tuesday, but we’ve done job so far so we just expect our guys to accept that challenge.”
“When you get 6,800, 7,000 people in this park, it’s going to be electric,” Nachbaur said. “It’s going to be memories a lot of people won’t forget.”
And in the end, he did give away one secret for his counterpart with Kootenay, Kris Knoblach, as well as the fans.
“I learned you have to dress warm.”