Just in case they don’t meet in the playoffs, the Western Hockey League schedule has arranged the next best thing: Eight of the Spokane Chiefs’ last 23 games are against the Tri-City Americans.
And if they do meet in the playoffs, well, so much the better.
The first of those eight came Saturday night at the Spokane Arena, a heart-breaking 5-4 Spokane loss, the 11th game for the Chiefs in 18 days. Seems excessive in the context of teenage hockey, and yet it’s not all that uncommon in the WHL even if it corrupts the notion of teams being prepared and dialed in every night out.
But it reminded Chiefs general manager Tim Speltz of a point to be made about his coach, Don Nachbaur.
When the Chiefs and Ams last met in the playoffs, it was 2008. Spokane would win the Memorial Cup that season; there’s every reason to think Tri-City would have had the Ams been the ones to prevail in Game 7 of their series. At the time, of course, Nachbaur coached the other guys.
“I remember beating them here, 2-0,” Speltz said, “to go up 2-1 in the series. I thought, ‘OK, we’ve got them right where we want them.’ I mean, he had (defensemen) leaving that night – I wasn’t sure they’d come back to the rink they were hit so hard and we were on them so bad.
“Right. They beat us the next night and we had to go back to their building 2-2. He’s simply as focused on having his team prepared as any coach we’ve had.”
And maybe at catching everyone unprepared.
To find Spokane hungrily poking around near the top of the U.S. Division standings this season is a little like discovering a Ferrari under your Charlie Brown Christmas tree.
In its first two decades of existence, never had this franchise put together back-to-back 90-point seasons. Coming off three in a row, then, and given the loss of 82 goals from a pair of all-star forwards, quantum slippage seemed inevitable – to the point that even early in the fall, the most anticipated date was the January trade deadline and what it might bring for the future.
That was before the Chiefs won 18 of 24 games during the second third of the season.
“And so we didn’t feel it would be fair to this year’s group,” said Speltz, “with the success they’d had, to say, ‘We have to look to the future.’ ”
Nor to the new coach who has more or less willed this bit of astonishment.
This is not to discount the remarkable jumps made by any number of youngsters of previously negligible accomplishment, or the MVP year Tyler Johnson has in the making or the leadership and consistency of nearly all the Chiefs veterans.
But this has the feeling of alchemy and, as such, needs an alchemist.
That the Chiefs had the opportunity to hire Nachbaur after his one-year toe-dip coaching in the American Hockey League was a gift; that they finally recognized the changing face of the WHL and took the leap away from “developing” a relative newbie was a whiff of hard reality.
“There are ex-NHL guys all over the Western Conference,” Speltz said. “Our guy has 450 wins in this league. That level of accomplishment is becoming the norm.”
If that means instant credibility, fine – but he’s not looking to sell his players on his credibility. His approach couldn’t be more basic.
“Earn it,” he said. “That’s always been my motto. I was given nothing in hockey. I had to earn my way through the ranks. And I think it’s a missing link in society today. I think our guys understand, now, that they earn the right to stay on the ice every night. They can earn their way off it, too.”
The message has not only been heard, but embraced. The Chiefs were the first WHL team to 200 goals, with 10 skaters in double figures. But they’re also among the league leaders in fewest goals allowed – though now their starting goaltender is out indefinitely.
“Don doesn’t accept ‘sometimes’ or ‘maybe,’ ” Speltz said. “By the same token, we’ve never had a coach who agonizes over the players who have to sit out. Somebody has to every night, but it drives him crazy.”
The question with all overachievers – and for the sake of argument, let’s call the Chiefs that – is whether they can sustain the pace.
“You weigh what’s important – being fresh and ready for that first round of the playoffs or whipping the pony to the end to hang a banner and get that home-ice advantage,” Nachbaur said. “I’ve been on both sides, and I think our kids like being in striking position.
“We’re in the hunt. That’s where you want to be.”