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John Blanchette: New Chiefs coach Dan Lambert has always been up for challenge

For all the many testimonials – compassionate, a communicator, a teacher – whether Dan Lambert is what the Spokane Chiefs need in a head coach will be answered in the standings.

But this much is certain: The Chiefs could use a Dan Lambert in the lineup.

Memorial Cup MVP, career assist leader in Swift Current, a pro career that stretched beyond his 39th birthday – all this as a 5-foot-8, 175-pound defenseman in an era that valued violence over skill.

“I remember playing against Spokane back in those days,” said Lambert on Tuesday after being introduced as the Chiefs’ head coach, “and being in a 5-on-5 brawl. They had a lot of tough guys and we didn’t have many. Those were the times when the league wasn’t so much fun.”

Well, the league hasn’t been so much fun for the Chiefs lately, either.

It’s not just failing to make the Western Hockey League playoffs this past season – a step back that general manager Scott Carter characterized Tuesday as “on purpose,” to cycle younger players into more prominent roles. That’s an often necessary long-term strategy, yet curiously one never disclosed to season ticket holders before they’re asked to re-up.

But even the previous three years, the Chiefs excused themselves quickly from the postseason. Their regular-season point totals have tumbled – from 90 to 85 to 72 to 75 to 66 – since 2013.

This may not have been what brought the club and former coach Don Nachbaur to their mutual parting, as it was painted this spring, but surely the thrill was gone. Lambert has been tasked with getting it back.

Though, of course, it’s a shared responsibility.

Lambert would know. He was part of the ensemble that brought Kelowna to WHL power as Spokane was treading water – first as a Rockets assistant coach, then as the head man who took them to the Memorial Cup final in 2015. That earned him his shot in the pros – NHL assistant at Buffalo, AHL head coach at Rochester – before he got swept up in one of those organizational purges that had nothing to do with his savvy at changing lines.

In fact, as Carter waited for the Sabres to clean house so he could make his pitch, the endorsements stacked high. Kelowna owner Bruce Hamilton, a WHL power broker, raved. Bill Peters, Spokane’s 2008 Memorial Cup coach now with the Carolina Hurricanes, told Chiefs owner Bobby Brett that Lambert was on the short list to take over their AHL affiliate. Another Brett Deep Throat professed shock that Lambert would return to juniors.

Which suggests the Lambert era in Spokane might be last only a couple of years.

Then again, nothing wrong with a sense of urgency.

Lambert was familiar enough with the Chiefs’ organization, but he did his homework, too.

“I talked to quite a few scouts who think highly of the young talent here,” he said, “and not just the talent but the character of those players. It’s an intriguing and exciting thing.”

Also an eye-of-the-beholder thing.

Where there’s slippage in the standings – incremental as it’s been – there are inevitably shortcomings in the roster. It’s an imperfect measurement, but it’s notable that since 2012, the Chiefs are tied for last in the league in players picked in the NHL draft – something likely to improve in a couple of weeks. The club hasn’t developed a truly special goaltender in a decade.

And even some of the top-end talents have to understand that being a two-way player is a skill, too.

“I know some people think we’ve gotten smaller,” Carter said, “but the game is about speed and we’re looking for speed, and we’re looking for people to compete hard. We’d like to add size, sure – you saw with our first-round pick (bantam draftee Jack Finley) we took some size. But it’s more about their character and courage levels.”

Having a smallish former D-man behind the bench may be yet another red-flag for the size-obsessed – though perhaps the Chiefs attack will become more wide-open. But Lambert can speak to the character-and-courage stuff.

He was a 16-year-old on the Swift Current bus en route to Regina that crashed in December 1986, killing four of his teammates and devastating the small prairie city that had been thrilled to have a team back in the WHL.

“We were 11 or 13 points out of a playoff spot when that happened,” Lambert recalled. “But we had a huge push in the second half and ended up making it. The character of those players we lost – it was almost a miracle. But in a tragic situation, we found a way to come together. And a few years later, we win the Memorial Cup.

“When you trust the guy next to you and believe your have each others’ backs – that’s when things can get really special. Building that is always challenging.”

His challenge, once again.


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