The Spokane Chiefs have had just six games and a few weeks of practice to get used to each other.
A new coach, several new players, and new systems are a lot to absorb in the abbreviated Western Hockey League preseason. It doesn’t matter though, as tonight the Chiefs open the regular season against the Kootenay Ice at the Rec-Plex in Cranbrook, British Columbia.
“I’ll tell you what; they’ll be a good hockey team,” said Spokane coach Bill Peters. “They’re well-coached and they’ve got enough guys coming back that they’re a dangerous club. Their system play has been very solid for a number of years.
“They’ll be prepared and they’ll be a very worthy opponent. … We’ll have our hands full, but we’re looking forward to the challenge.”
Peters will be making his WHL head coaching debut against one of the top coaches in the league, Cory Clouston. Clouston took an underestimated team last season to a regular-season title and a Western Conference finals berth.
The Ice were led last season by two 20-year-old players who have moved on to the pros: prolific left winger Nigel Dawes and stellar goalie Jeff Glass.
Kootenay also lost three other top-line forwards and a pair of defensemen, but return a core of players who should have the team in contention in the B.C. Division. In addition, the team should be a force in its home arena (27-4-3-2 last year), as evidenced by Friday’s big 7-1 win over visiting Tri-City.
The Chiefs have 24 roster players for the game, including 20-year-old defenseman Gustav Engman, who has returned from National Hockey League camp with Vancouver. The rest of Spokane’s drafted players are back with the team and will be getting re-acquainted with their linemates.
Also returning are center Adam Hobson (Chicago) and defenseman Sean Zimmerman (New Jersey). During the veterans’ absences, several rookies and second-year players got extended ice time as the Chiefs went 3-3 in the preseason. Those players will still get in the game tonight, but as third- and fourth-line players.
“I think we have some line combinations that fit together pretty well and I think we should be able to roll four pretty good lines out there,” Peters said. “Our young guys have provided real good energy through the preseason. I’ve been happy with our rookies, but now it’s up to our veterans to lead the way and show them what it’s all about in the regular season.”
Spokane also found itself shorthanded during many shifts in the preseason. Peters says that must change for tonight’s game and the rest of the regular season.
“The only thing that’s hurt us is a little bit of discipline as far as retaliation at times and we’ve got to learn from those mistakes,” he said. “We want to be a disciplined team. We also want to be an aggressive team and hard to play against.”
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