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Chiefs get look at youngsters

 Mitch Holmberg scored three goals but it was the performance of some of the younger players that drew the attention at the Chiefs' Red-White game on Sunday.
 (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-reivew)
Mitch Holmberg scored three goals but it was the performance of some of the younger players that drew the attention at the Chiefs' Red-White game on Sunday. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-reivew)

Camp is for kids.

So the critical eyes at the Spokane Chiefs’ annual August hockey orientation were being trained on the 14-year-old draft picks, new European imports and prospects hoping to make an impression – and a spot for themselves on this year’s roster.

If that makes a 20-year-old cashing in with three goals in the end-of-camp Red-White Game something of an attention hog, well, so be it.

But the fact is, Mitch Holmberg himself didn’t attach any real significance to the hat trick that made the White team 4-2 winners on Sunday afternoon at the Spokane Arena.

“Until you start playing against other teams,” he said, “you can’t read too much into that.”

Still, it was a nice seize-the-moment lesson for the youngsters, who apparently did some seizing of their own over the course of the four-day camp.

Some of that was evident Sunday, too, as when 14-year-old Kailer Yamamoto and older brother Keanu hooked up on a pretty goal for the Reds, much to the delight of their Spokane family and friends among the 2,972 fans.

But the weekend of scrimmages revealed more.

“In some aspects, some of the young kids are ahead of the returning players,” said Chiefs coach Don Nachbaur. “And that’s really good.”

That isn’t just a matter of conditioning, he insisted, but “the overall player.

“It’s going to put some pressure on some of our returning guys. They’re going to have to play well, and that’s going to make it more competitive. Any player who thinks he’s a lock for a job has the wrong mentality. We have to get better, and that comes from making yourself a better player, putting pressure on yourself to carry the load.”

Nachbaur will get a better sense of who’s ready for the heavy lifting once the 66-player camp roster is trimmed to a more manageable size, practice starts in earnest and the Chiefs can test themselves against Western Hockey League competition in preseason games.

The Red-White game had the tempo of league play if not the intensity.

Holmberg and his line of fellow 20-year-old Mike Aviani and Slovakian import Adam Hascic stepped that up beginning midway through the first period, Holmberg slapping a Hascic feed past Red goaltender Eric Williams for the first score. The same group teamed up on Holmberg’s pretty rebound goal at the 15:23 mark.

The Reds didn’t get on the board until early in the second period, when Keanu Yamamoto streaked down the right side and slid a perfect lead to his younger brother, who pushed the puck under Garret Hughson’s glove.

“This has been awesome,” Kailer said of the camp experience. “If I play for this team someday it’ll be really special.”

Spokane is their home, but the Yamamotos have done some traveling to test themselves on the ice, most recently playing with the Los Angeles Junior Kings program on different teams – though Kailer occasionally practiced with Keanu’s U-16 squad.

This camp has been another revelation.

“Seeing how fast they skate and how strong they are – it’s daunting but to be a good hockey player, you have to play through that,” Kailer said.

Nothing was heard from the Red squad after that until Curtis Miske netted a goal just two seconds from game’s end off a faceoff – that coming after Holmberg had completed his hat trick with an empty-netter.

“Mitch is a good sniper – if you give him a chance to score, it’s going to go in the back of the net,” Nachbaur said. “We’re going to need a hot stick from Mitch Holmberg.”

That’s because the Chiefs lost leading scorer Brenden Kichton to graduation and top goal scorer Todd Fiddler to trade, though roster churn is a way of WHL life.

“It happens every year,” Nachbaur said. “With this group, we’ll have to find different ways to score. We know we have some natural scorers – Mitch and some of those guys – and we showed that today. But there are other guys who had three, four, six goals last year that we expect bigger and better things from.”

The Chiefs’ first exhibition action comes next weekend in a preseason tournament in Everett. Their lone home game comes Sept. 11 against Tri-City at the University Recreation Center at Eastern Washington University.

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