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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Braves getting it done at home

For every Derek Ryan, there is a Ryan Skier. For every Seth Compton, there is a T.J. Clark.

Or, to put it another way, for every current Chief who is a former Spokane Brave, there is a current Brave carrying on the legacy of their predecessor; whether it be in a weekday-night practice at Planet Ice or on a weekend road trip to British Columbia.

If you need a better visual that sums up love of the game or dedication to a sport with no prospect of playing in front of crowds of 10,000, maybe this image will help.

Picture a goalie: one practicing with a colostomy bag; a goalie who can’t get out of the shower by himself in the morning, but who somehow straps on the pads in the afternoon to face pucks though he has no chance of making it to the National Hockey League.

That was Skier, a 2004 graduate of Shadle Park, two years ago. This year, he’s an all-star goalie for the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League Braves. More than that, he’s a leader and a role model for younger hockey players and a poster child for the current breed of Spokane Braves.

“The guys that are here are guys that at 15, 16, still wanted to play hockey and, for whatever reason … didn’t want to leave (Spokane), wanted to stay here,” says Braves coach Mike Bay. “For me to have them here, they have to be a part of what we’re trying to do here, which is get guys ready to go somewhere else.”

Bay and the non-profit organization have used that philosophy to help build the Junior B Braves into a nationally recognized feeder team for the Spokane Chiefs and other Junior A teams, colleges, as well as other leagues.

The Braves are the most visible symbol of the rise of youth hockey in Spokane, a scene with a rich tradition but one which hasn’t always provided its players with the opportunity to prep for the sport’s upper levels while attending school in their hometown.

“It’s been great,” says Ryan Pajimola, another Shadle student who plays for the Braves and is also a Chiefs prospect. “Great coaches; Bay’s a great coach; players come through here. It’s really easy to develop with guys like this.”

It’s an opportunity that current Chief and former Brave Derek Ryan, also a Highlander, truly appreciated on his way up in Spokane. He says things have changed since he first put on skates at age 3 and began playing hockey at age 5.

“Everybody was just playing to have fun,” said Ryan, who is fifth among Western Hockey League rookies in scoring just one year removed from the Braves. “Now, people are playing to go somewhere and do something with hockey. So, yeah, Spokane hockey has picked it up a little bit and I like that.”

Ryan was coached by his father, Tim, for most of his youth and there was this friend of his dad’s who hung around at practice. That friend was Bay, a Seattle native who was hired by Ryan and other parents to coach a killer midget-level AAA team.

That team included Ryan, Tommy Maxwell (now with Medicine Hat) and a host of others. Most of that core group followed Bay to the Braves program when he took over the part-time position four years ago and were joined by out-of-town prospects such as Compton, from West Richland, Wash. Now Spokane players don’t have to move to Canada to pursue their goals, but that choice still remains.

“Tim Ryan was an influential part of my hockey career; so was Bay,” Maxwell said after his recent homecoming game. Maxwell went to Chiefs camp when he was 15 and played in the Red-White game but didn’t make the squad and ended up in Medicine Hat. Though he loves Spokane, he’s glad the way things worked out.

“Playing at home is a real honor for a lot of people, but it’s a tough place: you’ve got friends and family, the media,” noted Maxwell, who said he discussed the topic with Ryan after a recent reunion game for Spokane junior hockey alumni over Christmas break.

For his part, Ryan says, “The first game I played I felt a little bit of pressure. Then, after the beginning of this season it was just playing hockey; going out there to try and do what I can.”

Yet while Ryan and Maxwell chase the NHL dream every night in the WHL, players like Skier and Clark are content paving the path for players such as Chiefs draft pick Mike Greenwell.

“When I was younger, my dream was to play for the Chiefs; college hockey, pro hockey, whatever,” says Skier. “I got sick, so it kind of set me back a bit. So, now I’m here just to help guys – be a role model, help develop players, try to make them a better person, better hockey player, all-around, so that they get the opportunity that I wish I would have.”

Skier’s disease was severe ulcerated colitis, a debilitating digestive condition that saw him lose a lot of weight, most of his upper intestine, and landed him a 10-week stay in the hospital, followed by 3½ months with a bag hanging off his hip during workouts. He was told that his stomach might not be able to handle competitive hockey.

Skier proved everyone wrong and now works daily with Greenwell, the Braves’ other goalie, who practices regularly with the Chiefs.

Greenwell, Pajimola, Michael Senseman of Vancouver, Wash., and a few select Braves may still get a shot to follow in the footsteps of Ryan, Compton, and Spokane transplant Sean Zimmerman – all current Chiefs and former Braves. If that happens, it will be due to players like Ryan. Does he feel like a ground-breaker?

“Yeah, I think so, because I’m the first Spokane player to play for the Spokane Chiefs (be on the roster full-time) in a long time,” said Ryan. “So, being the pioneers and going out and doing that, I think it will open some doors for kids in the future.”

In fact, the current crop of Spokane hockey prospects may have been planted by the seeds of the last generation which saw a Spokane product on the Chiefs’ roster. That would be the era of Danny Holden (Chiefs, 1985-86), whose son and others are now coming up through the youth hockey ranks. Parents like Holden and other former Braves and Chiefs have been giving back to the city’s programs for the past few years.

“I think there are a lot more opportunities these days,” said Holden. “You have leagues all over the place now, like the Nor-Pac (Flyers, Colts) … (and) the people that are involved in Spokane hockey right now are the right people; guys, a lot of them who have come up through the program and played at least at a Junior B level.”

Most of the current Braves are just glad for the opportunity to keep playing, including Clark. He says he has no illusions of playing Junior B after failing to stick with the Chiefs after camp the past two seasons.

“I figure, I’m 17 and not going to make it onto their squad anytime soon,” says Clark. “So, I just decided to play for the Braves for as long as I decide to keep playing. I pretty much just have the aspect of letting the younger players get some of the experience that I’ve learned from the places that I’ve been; just trying to make them better hockey players so they can move on to other places. … Right now, I’m just happy with what I’m doing, where I’m at, just having fun.”

For Bay, fun is important, but his current and former players say that he pushes them to do their best and raise the bar for the next generation of players pursuing their dreams.

“I tell these guys all the time, I’m not going with you,” says Bay. “You have to learn to do this on your own. And where you’re going, that guy has to win games, I don’t have to win hockey games. … I don’t care about winning. My goal every year is just make this a better place next year for the guys who come here.”

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