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Kailer Yamamoto’s journey from Spokane Chiefs to NHL has been ‘a whirlwind, a struggle at times, but a lot of fun’

UPDATED: Tue., June 18, 2019, 5:21 p.m.

NHL player Kailer Yamamoto poses for a photo in the Chiefs locker room on Tuesday, June 11, 2019, at the Spokane Arena in Spokane, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
NHL player Kailer Yamamoto poses for a photo in the Chiefs locker room on Tuesday, June 11, 2019, at the Spokane Arena in Spokane, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

Fresh off a return from visiting a doctor in Los Angeles, Kailer Yamamoto held up and rotated his wrist, which had just been given a clean bill of health.

After almost three months off the ice, Yamamoto, as of early last week, could skate again.

“I don’t even know if I know how to skate anymore,” he said.

The 2018-19 season was an up-and-down one for the former Spokane Chiefs star and first-round pick of the Edmonton Oilers. Almost two years removed from hearing his named called at the draft, Yamamoto is still trying to establish his place in the NHL.

He hasn’t done it yet. Two years ago he got a taste of the NHL, playing in nine regular season games and recording three assists before being sent back to the Chiefs in the Western Hockey League.

Last season promised to be better, but ineffectiveness and injuries limited him to 17 NHL games, when he scored his first goal and added one assist – but that was it. So, he was sent to California to play for the Bakersfield Condors, the Oilers’ affiliate in the American Hockey League.

“Any time you get to play in the NHL, it’s awesome, but definitely it was a whirlwind, a struggle at times, but a lot of fun,” the 20-year-old Yamamoto said. “Going up and down from league to league, it definitely was a learning curve. You always wanna play in the NHL, so getting sent down’s tough.”

Bakersfield wasn’t bad at all, Yamamoto said. Aside from the disappointment of not being at the highest level, the AHL was a nice consolation. Often it’s a necessary step in a player’s development.

“I think there’s a learning curve, a steep learning curve, between juniors and the NHL,” Chiefs general manager Scott Carter said. “I think it never hurts a player to play a year or two in the American Hockey League and learn to be a professional and learn to play against men instead of teenagers.”

As the shortest, lightest and second-youngest player to play for the Oilers this past season, Yamamoto knows that adjustment well. He is part of a rising percentage of hockey players who are finding a place in a sport that is getting smaller and faster.

But even still, 5-foot-8 and 154 pounds is pretty small. That’s why Yamamoto’s focus this summer is getting bigger and stronger without sacrificing the quickness that led the Oilers to make him the 22nd overall pick in 2017.

“I think he’s got tremendous upside: his skill and his speed and his compete,” Carter said. “I think it’s only a matter of time before he plays in Edmonton.”

Yamamoto said he enjoyed his time in Bakersfield, where he scored 10 goals and added eight assists in 27 regular season games. Bakersfield lost in the second round of the AHL playoffs, but Yamamoto missed both playoff series because of his wrist injury.

“The team in Bakersfield was probably the closest team I’ve been on. They were awesome,” said Yamamoto, who was one of the two 19-year-olds on a team mostly composed of men in their mid-20s. “Everytime you walk into the rink you’ve got a smile on your face because there’s 25 other guys just smiling. I had a phenomenal time.”

This year marked the first that Yamamoto was truly away from home. Having grown up in Spokane, he played one year of hockey with the Junior Kings in Los Angeles as a 15-year-old, billeting with a local family. But after that he was able to live at home and attend Mead High School while he played for the Chiefs.

That meant meals cooked at home and time spent with Keanu, his brother, both on and off the ice. So living on his own for the first time, alternating between Edmonton and Bakersfield, that required some adjustments.

“Obviously it’s different when you start living on your own. It was definitely a learning process,” he said. “It was good. It made me grow up a little bit faster. When you’re starting to have to pay bills, cook on your own … I’m not that big of a cooker, but I’ll get in there.”

He is home for the summer, though, focused on training and preparing for next season in advance of the Oilers’ training camp in September. Now that he is able to skate again, he plans to be on the ice a lot, even training some with Bear Hughes, the Post Falls native who made his Chiefs debut late last season.

Yamamoto hopes he and Hughes can continue the region’s line to the NHL, established by Derek Ryan (Shadle Park) and Tyler Johnson (Central Valley). Both Ryan and Johnson are undersized like Yamamoto, getting their shot in an NHL that continues to shift toward speed and skill – traits Yamamoto clearly possesses.

Next season he hopes to prove that he, like Ryan and Johnson, belongs in the NHL.

“It’s awesome being a Spokane native,” Yamamoto said. “I’m just happy I can show kids playing here that anything’s possible. You’re never too small, you’re never out of it.”

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