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Chiefs take aim as WHL season gets set to open

The goal for the Spokane Chiefs never varies – play an Eastern Conference team in late spring.

That would mean that Spokane, which opens the season at Tri-City on Saturday, would be playing for the Western Hockey League title.

Until that happens, there isn’t a whole lot of emphasis placed on Eastern Conference games, since the Chiefs only see those teams once each season, one year going to the East Division while the Central Division teams visit the Arena, and then switching the next season.

The two points, especially at home, are important, but generally, because those games are scheduled early in the season, it’s easier for the Chiefs to focus on what they do best and need to do better.

That doesn’t help a lot in trying to figure out which teams are the ones to beat as the season opens Thursday night when Brandon helps Moose Jaw open its new $61.2 million Mosaic Place.

“Who’s got returning players, who’s got a returning goalie,” Spokane general manager Tim Speltz said. “For me, the tie always goes to the returning goalies.”

That would seem to give the Kootenay Ice a good chance to repeat in the Eastern Conference, at least if over-age goalie Nathan Lieuwen is returned by Buffalo. But the Ice lost a number of key contributors, so Medicine Hat and Saskatoon should be challengers because of goalies Tyler Bunz and Adam Morrison, respectively.

And if a goalie emerges, veteran lineups in Red Deer and Moose Jaw look strongest.

In the B.C. Division of the Western Conference, Kelowna is favored to repeat, with a strong one-two punch of Adam Brown and Jordan Cooke between the pipes. But in the last couple of years, the U.S. Division as emerged as the toughest.

Portland, Spokane and Tri-City had more points than Kelowna last year, with Portland beating the Chiefs to make it to the finals against Kootenay. When the Tri-City Americans made the WHL finals two years ago, four teams in the U.S. Division had more points than the B.C. winner.

Although that also makes focusing on Western Conference opponents in general and U.S. rivals in particular important for the Chiefs, they can’t ignore the other 12 teams.

“We need to know the players (in the East) and we need to know the teams, because team success probably dictates if they’re trading players or trading for players,” Speltz said.

Portland would again be the team to beat in the West. During an extended period as doormat, the Winterhawks stockpiled talent. It was reflected in their conference title last year and the fact they had 15 players at NHL camps this fall, including a high number of draft picks.

The Chiefs were hot on Portland’s heels last year without the eye-popping talent – only four players went to pro camps this fall – and there is no reason to believe that won’t be the case again. It’s all about the commitment the Chiefs showed at both ends of the ice last year when they tied for the league lead in goals and were second in goals allowed.

And there is more to the Americans, the Chiefs’ opponent in their home opener Oct. 1, than just a rivalry making them strong.

But while there might be questions about what to expect in the standings, there is no uncertainty about what is going to be the emphasis on the ice.

First is the concern with head injuries and second is embellishment, which go hand in hand.

“The emphasis on concussions in sports, not just hockey, has been magnified,” Speltz said, referring to Pittsburgh star Sidney Crosby, sidelined since January. “That’s not a bad thing. We want concussion numbers down. At same time, we don’t want to take physical part of the game down. But those predatory hits, where players have no regard for puck … those are going to be penalties.”

In addition to eliminating hits to unsuspecting and vulnerable players, trying to feign unnecessary contact is going to be treated just as harshly.

“The thing that (fans) will notice at the start is that there will be zero tolerance for any embellishment,” Speltz said. “If the referee has his arm up for tripping and (the player) tries to embellish that on the way down, there are going to be two penalties.

“We don’t want our game to turn into soccer where we’ve got diving and embellishing. The game is tough enough now. If the players are faking or acting, it makes it impossible for the referees.”

Ice chips

Only Saskatoon’s Loren Molleken and Vancouver’s Don Hay, who reached 500 wins last year in their 14th seasons in the league, have been with their current team more than five seasons. Both are heading into their eighth. Seventeen of 22 coaches are in their third season or less, with five new coaches. … Everett has made the playoffs all eight of its seasons in the league but is rebuilding under first-year coach Mark Fenner. … Edmonton has not made the playoffs since joining the league in 2007. … Calgary had a streak of 13 straight playoff seasons snapped last season. Brandon is working on an 11-season playoff streak. … Kootenay won the league under first-year coach Kris Knoblach despite finishing third in the Central and fourth overall in the Eastern Conference. … Seattle has a new coach in Steve Konawalchuk. … The Chilliwack Bruins have relocated to Victoria and became the Royals. … Emerson Eten of Medicine Hat is the top returning goal scorer with 45. … Ryan Nugent-Hopkins of Red Deer led in assists with 75, before being the No. 1 pick in the NHL draft by Edmonton. He could stick with the Oilers.