The 63 players in attendance were the main focus Thursday, but the Spokane Chiefs couldn’t completely ignore the two who were absent.
The Chiefs opened their annual fall camp at the Arena with their roster hopefuls divided into three teams that will play nine games leading up to Sunday’s Red-White Game.
Each year the camp features veterans, up-and-comers and recent Western Hockey League Bantam Draft selections who hope to make a positive impression and gain a spot on the team.
This year’s camp will proceed without two veteran defensemen who were expected to be among the team’s top players. Reid Gow, last year’s captain and third-leading scorer, and Jeremy McIntosh opted not to return to the Chiefs.
“Some of the guys are going to look at it and say, ‘Wow, this is a great opportunity for me. There’s room here for me,’ ” Chiefs general manager Tim Speltz said. “The older guys, I think, have to be the most disappointed because if (Gow and McIntosh) were committed and passionate about the game, they’d be great for our team.”
“Their absence now has opened the door for other players who want to play in the league and who want to play for the Spokane Chiefs,” Chiefs coach Don Nachbaur said. “So it’s similar, for me, to a guy going down for a month or two with an injury. We have to replace them … and try not to miss a beat.”
Gow, who had 56 assists last season, would have been entering his 20-year-old season. The Chiefs had six potential 20-year-old returners after last season, but forwards Liam Stewart (seven goals, 21 assists in injury-plagued season), Connor Chartier (14 goals, 18 assists) and Marcus Messier (late-season acquisition from Tri-City; 31 points total) are the remaining three.
Spokane’s top returning scorers are 19-year-old defenseman Jason Fram, who had 51 assists and was fourth on the team with 57 points, and 19-year-old forward Adam Helewka (23 goals, 27 assists). Fram is a strong candidate to become the team’s next captain.
“For me … the one guy who’s always been very professional in his demeanor, whether it’s at the rink, off ice, at school, is Jason Fram,” Speltz said.
Helewka expressed confidence in the team despite the shortage of experienced defensemen.
“From what I heard from the coaches and the staff, the fitness testing has been one of the best in years,” Helewka said. “I’ve been watching and the young guys look good out there. They’re making a good impression, for sure.”
The Chiefs’ other 19-year-olds are forward Riley Whittingham (13 goals, 19 assists), forward Blair Oneschuk and goaltenders Garret Hughson and Alex Moodie, acquired in a trade from Saskatoon in May.
Goaltending will be a major focus as the Chiefs look to replace Eric Williams.
“We think Garret Hughson is ready,” Speltz said. “We’re excited about Alex Moodie, if we can get him back to where he was, and Tyson Verhelst is a young goalie that we think has great potential. … And yet we don’t have a ‘proven’ guy, a 20-year-old coming back like Eric Williams was.”
The Chiefs relied on WHL scoring champion Mitch Holmberg (62 goals, 56 assists) and Mike Aviani (38 goals, 43 assists) during their 20-year-old seasons last year.
“You look through our lineup (and ask), ‘Who’s going to score for us?’ ” Nachbaur said. “That’s probably the biggest question right now. Who’s going to score and who’s going to emerge as the No. 1 goalie?”
The candidates will continue to show their abilities today and Saturday ahead of Sunday’s 1 p.m. Red/White Game.