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Thursday, July 2, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Chiefs In Tough Crowd In Whl’s West Division, Everybody’s A Contender

They’re deep in talent, long in experience. They’re well-coached.

Their new locker rooms and office space are the envy of the league.

They’ve sold more than 2,500 season tickets, a club record.

The Spokane Chiefs are strong on and off the ice. When they open the season Saturday night at Tri-City they have to be counted with the contenders.

The catch is, everybody’s a contender in the wild, wild West.

“I don’t see anybody with a real weakness,” Chiefs coach Mike Babcock said. “That makes the division real tough.”

Kelowna Rockets general manager Bruce Hamilton chimes in, “There’s no free lunch this year. Everybody’s better.”

This is as tight a division as I’ve ever seen in this league. It’s not going to be up for easy takings.”

It’s a year of balance and change. The league has expanded to three divisions. The West retains the same seven-team lineup with a revamped playoff format. Gone is the round-robin. The division winner will play the sixth-place finisher, No. 2 will get No. 5 and No. 3 is matched with the No. 4 team after regular-season games.

The WHL Central includes the Medicine Hat Tigers, Swift Current Broncos, Lethbridge Hurricanes, Red Deer Rebels and the expansion Calgary Hitmen, named for pro rassler and minority owner Bret (Hitman) Hart and run by former league president Ed Chynoweth.

The Moose Jaw Warriors, Prince Albert Raiders, Saskatoon Blades, Brandon Wheat Kings and Regina Pats are the WHL East.

Although the chase starts with defending Memorial Cup-champion Kamloops - the Blazers have strung together 13 straight winning seasons - a change at the top would be no surprise. The point men who won three of the last four major junior hockey championships are gone. Coach Don Hay is an assistant with the NHL Calgary Flames. Front-office politics cost general manager Bob Brown his job.

Brown now guides the Tri-City Americans, who from the distance of September seem to have the best shot at unseating the Blazers.

“They have a good team even if Daymond Langkow doesn’t come back,” Portland coach Brent Peterson said. “If he does come back they’re great.”

Langkow, last season’s WHL scoring leader, is likely to stick with the NHL Tampa Bay Lightning.

If the Americans are slow to adjust to life after Langkow expect Brown to get on the phone. Part of his magic is recognizing a weakness and shoring it up with a trade.

The new coach in Kamloops, Ed Dempsey, and the GM, Stu MacGregor, aren’t without qualifications. MacGregor headed the Blazers’ successful scouting operation.

But their job - to maintain excellence - is the toughest in sports. If they don’t win 50 on the way to another Memorial Cup they’re failures.

Kamloops will miss scoring leader Darcy Tucker. Defenseman Jason Strudwick won’t be back. Goaltender Randy Petruk is a dandy but there were plenty of nights when he only faced 20 shots.

With 15 players in pro camp, Kamloops went 1-5 in preseason games.

Portland’s Peterson puts the favorite’s label on the Kelowna Rockets.

The Rockets, who relocated after four years in Tacoma, have lines of talent. They also have a history of soaring takeoffs and bumpy landings. The franchise, in its fifth season, has never made it beyond the first round of the playoffs.

The Rockets are stronger with the addition of center Rob Gordon from the University of Michigan but Vaclav Varada, a 50-goal scorer, may not return. Varada is said to be considering an offer to play in Europe.

Scott Parker, a 6-4, 220-pound defenseman from Eagle River, Alaska, made it with with the Rockets. Parker played with the junior B Spokane Braves last year.

Portland is still too young to go all the way but watch the Winter Hawks move up the ladder. Inxperience in goal - Scott Langkow is gone - may hurt at the start but the talented 17-year-olds will improve as the season wears on.

“We think we’re at the bottom end in experence,” Peterson said.

Portland will play four games, including one with Spokane, in the 18,300-seat Rose Garden that was built for the NBA Trail Blazers.

Seattle coach Don Nachbaur, who had plenty of holes to fill when the T-Birds came to camp, will have another if all-star defenseman Deron Quint sticks with Winnipeg.

Look for Prince George to make some headway under Doug Hobson.

Five Cougars went off to camp with their pro teams - Sheldon Souray, Martin Hohenburger, Chris Mason, Colin Cloutier and Peter Roed. All are expected back.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 Color)

MEMO: These 2 sidebars appeared with the story: 1. HOW THEY’LL FARE Teams 1. Tri City Americans 2. Kamloops Blazers 3. Portland Winter Hawks 4. SPOKANE CHIEFS 5. Kelowna Rockets 6. Prince George Cougars 7. Seattle Thunderbirds For a complete look at sraff writer Dan Weaver’s predictions, see C6

2. HOW THEY’LL FARE 1. Tri-City… If WHL scoring leader Daymond Langkow returns from NHL Tampa Bay the Americans become the team to beat. But TB keeps first-round choices so Langkow’s brilliant junior career is probably history. Terry Ryan, seventh in WHL scoring last year (50 goals, 60 assists), is a threat. Brian Boucher is the stopper in goal. Bob Loucks returns after coaching Ams to last year’s divison finals. 2. Kamloops … Gunning for an unprecended third straight major junior championship under new coach Ed Dempsey, Blazers could have five players back from pro camp who made Canada’s World Junior Tournament championship team. Title Town stays on top but it won’t be easy. 3. Portland … Coming hard at the end of the season, Brent Peterson’s young sixth-place club upset Seattle in the first round of last season’s playoffs. A stable program with great resources, Winter Hawks lay off the panic button. Patience is about to be rewarded. 4. Spokane… Could go much higher with quality and quantity at both ends. Mike Babcock coaches with the best but the few questions he inherits are huge. Who’s the next Kevin Sawyer? Goaltender had great numbers in backup role last year but can David Lemanowicz carry the club the way Jarrod Daniel did a year ago? If Jason Podollan goes pro as expected who replaces his 84 points, not to mention his great post-game quotes? 5. Kelowna… Could be the dumb pick of the year. Rockets are No. 1 in newspaper projections in Regina and Portland. Move from the blah Tacoma Dome has the juices flowing. The club is no longer a community afterthought. Marcel Comeau is a universally respected coach but the Rockets folded in the first-round last year - again - and that’s discouraging enough to keep them searching in a tough division. 6. Prince George… Last for six straight years the Cougars have a modest goal - just make the playoffs. It won’t be a shock if they get there. 7. Seattle… T-Birds were written off early last year too but Don Nachbaur came out of nowhere to be coach of the year. There are things out of a coach’s control, however, such as graduation (Chris Herperger is gone) and the recently diagnosed heart ailment that has ended forward Regan Mueller’s career.

These 2 sidebars appeared with the story: 1. HOW THEY’LL FARE Teams 1. Tri City Americans 2. Kamloops Blazers 3. Portland Winter Hawks 4. SPOKANE CHIEFS 5. Kelowna Rockets 6. Prince George Cougars 7. Seattle Thunderbirds For a complete look at sraff writer Dan Weaver’s predictions, see C6

2. HOW THEY’LL FARE 1. Tri-City… If WHL scoring leader Daymond Langkow returns from NHL Tampa Bay the Americans become the team to beat. But TB keeps first-round choices so Langkow’s brilliant junior career is probably history. Terry Ryan, seventh in WHL scoring last year (50 goals, 60 assists), is a threat. Brian Boucher is the stopper in goal. Bob Loucks returns after coaching Ams to last year’s divison finals. 2. Kamloops … Gunning for an unprecended third straight major junior championship under new coach Ed Dempsey, Blazers could have five players back from pro camp who made Canada’s World Junior Tournament championship team. Title Town stays on top but it won’t be easy. 3. Portland … Coming hard at the end of the season, Brent Peterson’s young sixth-place club upset Seattle in the first round of last season’s playoffs. A stable program with great resources, Winter Hawks lay off the panic button. Patience is about to be rewarded. 4. Spokane… Could go much higher with quality and quantity at both ends. Mike Babcock coaches with the best but the few questions he inherits are huge. Who’s the next Kevin Sawyer? Goaltender had great numbers in backup role last year but can David Lemanowicz carry the club the way Jarrod Daniel did a year ago? If Jason Podollan goes pro as expected who replaces his 84 points, not to mention his great post-game quotes? 5. Kelowna… Could be the dumb pick of the year. Rockets are No. 1 in newspaper projections in Regina and Portland. Move from the blah Tacoma Dome has the juices flowing. The club is no longer a community afterthought. Marcel Comeau is a universally respected coach but the Rockets folded in the first-round last year - again - and that’s discouraging enough to keep them searching in a tough division. 6. Prince George… Last for six straight years the Cougars have a modest goal - just make the playoffs. It won’t be a shock if they get there. 7. Seattle… T-Birds were written off early last year too but Don Nachbaur came out of nowhere to be coach of the year. There are things out of a coach’s control, however, such as graduation (Chris Herperger is gone) and the recently diagnosed heart ailment that has ended forward Regan Mueller’s career.

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