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WHL will fill void for hockey fans

Here’s one more thing to appreciate about major junior hockey: Its teams will actually be playing hockey soon.

As the National Hockey League went into lockout mode last week with the expiration of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, 60 Canadian Hockey League teams were wrapping up the preseason slate.

That includes the Spokane Chiefs of the Western Hockey League, who open their regular-season schedule in Kennewick on Saturday when they take on their U.S. Division rivals, the Tri-City Americans.

But the WHL season officially begins tonight with the Kootenay Ice visiting the defending league champion Edmonton Oil Kings, who fell just short of winning the Memorial Cup last season. The Oil Kings – with eight NHL prospects on their current roster – are still favored to win the WHL’s Ed Chynoweth Cup.

Portland, the reigning Western Conference champion after beating Tri-City in last season’s conference final, is also packed with NHL-caliber talent, and is the early favorite in the West.

The WHL will send two teams to this year’s Memorial Cup as the host league, with the Saskatoon Blades automatically in as the tournament hosts.

Regardless of which teams climb to the top of the standings this season, WHL fans will reap the rewards of quite possibly the only positive aspect of the NHL lockout – watching a handful of talented hockey players in their final junior days. Players, that is, who would be in the NHL this season were it not for the labor strife.

Those players – Everett’s Ryan Murray, for example – are expected to take off whenever the lockout ends so junior hockey fans should enjoy it while it lasts.