It’s a long way from Spokane to Edmonton.
It’s probably even longer from state-of-the-art Rogers Place – one of the premier hockey venues in North America and home to the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers – to Eagles Ice-A-Rena in North Spokane.
Still, if Kailer Yamamoto were disappointed on Tuesday morning in his first practice back with the Western Hockey League’s Spokane Chiefs after spending two-plus months with the Oilers – through training camp, preseason and the first month of the regular season – he didn’t show it.
“It feels good (to be back),” Yamamoto said. “To see the family again, see all the guys again. It’s really good.”
Even if that means dressing at Eagles instead of the comparative luxury of NHL arenas and practice facilities?
“I grew up playing in this arena, so it’s one of my favorites,” Yamamoto said of the old hockey barn that was colder inside than the air temperature of the mid-30s outside. “Even though I’ve played in a lot of nice rinks, this is probably one of my favorites. I have a lot of childhood memories from this rink.”
Yamamoto, a Spokane native and Mead High graduate, even moved back with his folks following his first taste of NHL life.
“It feels good to sleep in my own bed again,” he joked. “It’s always good to see (his parents), to get a home-cooked meal again.”
Yamamoto was returned to the Chiefs from the Oilers on Monday, at the deadline of exhausting his eligibility to be returned to the junior level for the season. He is scheduled to suit up in the Chiefs’ next contest, at Lethbridge on Friday.
“We’re excited to have Kailer here,” Chiefs coach Dan Lambert said. “I think at the start of the season we all thought there was a chance he was going to come back. Then he played so well he forced the (issue) a little bit. But we’re happy to have him and excited to see him in a Chiefs uniform.”
Following a tremendous preseason – he scored five goals with two assists in six exhibition games – Yamamoto made the Oilers’ opening night roster and played in nine of their first 13 games, picking up three assists, 21 shots and two penalty minutes. He recorded his first NHL point against the Ottawa Senators on Oct. 14.
“Obviously, all along we’ve wanted the best for Kailer,” Lambert said. “He earned extra time up there for sure. Ultimately, the Oilers made a decision to send him back and of course we’ll welcome him with open arms. We hope to help him continue his development to get him ready for the National Hockey League.”
Yamamoto, a 19-year-old, 5-foot-8, 154-pound forward, was Edmonton’s first-round pick (No. 22 overall) in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. He returns for his fourth season with the Chiefs after a dynamic 2016-17 campaign in which he scored 42 goals and totaled 99 points. He has 227 points, including 84 goals, in 190 career WHL games.
He’s back in Spokane with an idea of what it will take to get back the NHL level – for good.
“You’ve got to do everything quick,” Yamamoto said. “Whether you’re in the high slot, try an extra pass, you’ve got to get that off quicker. You’ve got to be skating full speed all the time. You can’t take any off nights. You’ve got to come the rink prepared every day and work as hard as you can.
“Just how fast it is and knowing what I need to do to get to the next level and, obviously, stay there. It was a fun ride, but I know what I need to do to get back there.”
Most young players mention the difference in the speed of the game between juniors or minor league hockey and the NHL, and Yamamoto was no different. Maybe his biggest challenge, though, was the uncertainty of whether he would stay in Edmonton or return home.
“It was definitely tough being there and not knowing if you’re going to stay or go,” he said. “It was tough. But they were really good talking with me a lot.”
Yamamoto said he’s received some good-natured ribbing from his teammates upon his return, but the overall response has been nothing but positive.
“(His teammates) think it’s really cool,” he said. “But I’m just like any one of them, so I’m not going to try to show it off at all. I just want to fit in again and be with the guys and have a good time with them.”
Still, his locker was next to NHL superstar Connor McDavid while in Edmonton, so that had to impress his new old teammates.
“When you’re sitting by McDavid, it’s pretty crazy,” he said. “It’s almost seems surreal. But being able to sit next to him and take some pages from his playbook it’s really good.
And what was the biggest thing Yamamoto lifted from that playbook?
“(McDavid)’s an unbelievable leader,” Yamamoto said. “He’s a little bit quieter, but he leads by example. Everything he does, whether it’s off the ice, on the ice, he’s always leading by example.”
Yamamoto said he doesn’t have any specific goals this season with the Chiefs, other to elevate his game – and win.
“I want to come in here and make this team a lot better,” Yamamoto said. “My goal is to win every game that we play and I’m going to try to do whatever I can to help us win.”
Lambert thinks there’s a lot that Yamamoto will add to his team – which is off to an 8-7-1-2 start, fourth place in the WHL’s U.S. Division.
“You’re adding a guy that’s going to push the pace for you,” Lambert said. “You’re adding a guy that’s going to make other players better.
“It’s exciting to add one of the better junior players in North America join your team at this time of year and we’re thrilled to death to have him.”