LETHBRIDGE, Alberta – From the bench, the pats on the helmets began with 30 seconds remaining.
As time expired, the Spokane Chiefs poured onto the ice, tossed aside their gloves, helmets and sticks, and the celebration began.
Upon completion of their 4-1 victory over the Lethbridge Hurricanes on Wednesday night at the Enmax Center, Chiefs captain Chris Bruton kissed the Ed Chynoweth Cup and lifted it into the air as a crowd of 5,092 – peppered with Spokane fans who made the 380-mile trek to witness history – looked on.
For the first time in 17 years and the second time in franchise history, the Chiefs are Western Hockey League champions and in the process earned a trip to Kitchener, Ontario, for a chance to win the coveted Memorial Cup.
“Look – first team ever, right there,” Chiefs coach Bill Peters said, holding the Cup out to Chiefs general manager Tim Speltz on the ensuing on-ice festivities. “Forever, right? Forever. That’s ours.”
The league championship trophy, which was renamed from the President’s Cup to the Ed Chynoweth Cup after last season in honor of the recently deceased Chynoweth – a pioneer in the league and a close friend of Speltz’s – served as a reminder of the long wait. Speltz was with Spokane when it won the league title in 1991, the same year the Chiefs won the franchise’s only Memorial Cup championship.
“We won it our first year in Spokane and you think, ‘Well, this is going to happen a lot,’ and it doesn’t – it just doesn’t,” said Speltz. “It’s very special, especially with this group of guys with how they’ve come together and how we accumulated every guy – whether it was through the draft or a trade or a free agent.
“For me to be the first one to win that Cup, it’s unbelievable,” added a choked-up Speltz.
Liberty Lake native Tyler Johnson, a WHL rookie this season, was named the series MVP after scoring three goals – including one Wednesday and two that counted as game-winners in the series.
Through 21 playoff games, Johnson has recorded five goals and three assists.
“It’s unbelievable – last time Spokane went to the (Memorial) Cup was in 1991 when I was born,” said Johnson, whose goal 3 minutes, 37 seconds into the second period gave the Chiefs a 2-0 lead. “We played great this series. We probably had the toughest road in the playoffs, so we’re going to take it and enjoy it and hopefully win one more cup.”
It was clear from the drop of the puck that the Chiefs were in no mood to extend the series to a potential fifth game here on Friday.
Drayson Bowman fed Mitch Wahl on the left post and the Chiefs took a 1-0 lead 13:37 into the opening period.
“They’re good at what they do – they play a solid defensive game and then they capitalize,” Hurricanes overage forward Mike Wuchterl said. “As soon as you make one mistake, it’s in the back of your net.”
After Johnson scored early in the second, Nick Hotson netted the Canes’ goal at 5:28 and Lethbridge kept it a one-goal game until early in the third period. That’s when David Rutherford and Ondrej Roman went to work.
Rutherford scored on a power play at 2:20 and Roman added another insurance goal with less than 4 minutes remaining – the ninth playoff goal for each.
Goalie Dustin Tokarski finished with 17 saves to improve his playoff record in net for Spokane to 16-5.
He and Peters shared a long hug on the ice before Tokarski was handed the hardware for the first time.
“You can’t describe it, because it’s so emotional in a lot of ways,” said Peters. “I’m so proud of my guys, and how hard they work and they really do appreciate each other and care for each other. That’s the biggest thing this team has going. We had our ups and downs, and not many downs, and we’ve grown from our adversity.
“We’re a family.”
Mitch Holmberg, the Chiefs’ first-round bantam draft pick this year, and former Chiefs coach Bryan Maxwell, who led Spokane to the Memorial Cup win in 1991, were in attendance. … The Memorial Cup is from May 16-25.
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