Dead last, no playoffs, coaching change, new regime.
So when do the Spokane Chiefs hoist that next Western Hockey League championship banner to the top of the Spokane Arena?
Why not next year?
C’mon! Rose-colored face shields for everyone!
Look, if you want over-the-top positivity, you’ve come to the wrong place. There will be no Memorial Cup trip for the Chiefs this year. They’ll be better than they were last winter – there’s really no way they can avoid it. Playoff hockey will be a thing. But you don’t take a Zamboni to a drag race without some time in the shop to soup it up.
A year or so should do it.
This isn’t so much a prediction as a possibility, and possibility is the red corpuscles of sports. Everyone can use some possibility – especially the Chiefs’ customers.
The club finished last in the U.S. Division in the 2016-17 season, missing the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade. The Chiefs haven’t survived the first round in the last four seasons.
That’s not an unprecedented run of mediocrity – the early 2000s and the franchise’s first several seasons in Spokane produced comparable futility. And there are any number of hopeful signs, from the arrival of a new voice behind the bench in Dan Lambert to the recent NHL draft that was – based on high picks – the best reflection on the club in 20 years.
And then there’s history, which suggests delirium can be found just around the block from despair.
Open your texts to 2006, when the Chiefs – under first year coach Bill Peters – won all of 25 games and missed the playoffs for the second year in a row. The team scored a mere 193 goals (one more than the franchise low the year before), and the roster was in full churn. Leading scorer Chad Klassen, former first-round bantam draft pick Mike Reich, top defender Joe Logan and Jim Watt – who played more games in goal than any Chief except Barry Brust – were all shipped out in trades.
“What the heck is (general manager) Tim Speltz thinking?” groused a Spokesman-Review letter writer.
Well, he was thinking about the future, of course.
And in just two years, the Chiefs were Memorial Cup champions.
Not specifically because of those trades, though defenseman Justin Falk and goaltender Kevin Armstrong played important roles after being acquired. But roles grew for youngsters like Drayson Bowman and Jared Spurgeon, too, and the club’s identity began to change.
And if you care to dig even deeper into the musty archives, check out where the Chiefs were two seasons before their first Memorial Cup in 1991.
That’s right. Dead last in the Western Division, out of the playoffs, having surrendered a franchise worst 419 goals.
Apparently, the five-year plans that clot the rebuilding landscape of other sports are a mere two in junior hockey.
And it’s not just the Chiefs.
Over the past two decades, six WHL champions were crowned after failing to make the playoffs two seasons earlier; four others were eliminated in the first round. That’s half of the banners in that span going to franchises building not necessarily from rocks and dirt, but with little more than a blueprint and some nails. Calgary went from 15 victories in 1997 to the title in 1999. In 2010, Edmonton won just 16 games, then rose to the top of the WHL in 2012 – and stayed there to win a Memorial Cup in 2014.
Naturally, it’s not just as simple as being lousy one year and great a couple seasons later.
The Chiefs of 2008 were an alchemist’s dream. Former No. 1 picks blossomed. The import draft – always a bit of crapshoot – produced. Chris Bruton evolved into a remarkable leader. WHL discards like Judd Blackwater and David Rutherford became unlikely successes. And, of course, Spokane’s own Tyler Johnson became an even more unlikely one. Finally, Dustin Tokarski became the stopper in goal that’s been so elusive in the Chiefs’ history.
These Chiefs may have even more questions. The futures of NHL draftees Kailer Yamamoto and Jaret Anderson-Dolan will figure in heavily, as will how the holdover talent adapts to Lambert’s system. What bold – or even understated – strokes can general manager Scott Carter make via trade or listing?
And, yes, is there a goaltender – an elite goaltender – in the house?
“I think we’re set up real well,” 16-year-old Luke Toporowski said at the end of training camp. “There are four or five NHL draft picks on the roster – real good guys to look up to and model your game after. I think there’s a chance to have a Memorial Cup run in these next two or three years.”
So, just wait ’til next year – but keep an eye on this one.
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