The Spokane Chiefs will start the Western Hockey League season at home for the first time in 15 years.
After the 2015-16 season kicks off at the Arena on Saturday night, it may seem like another 15 years before the next Chiefs home game.
The Chiefs usually begin the season in Kennewick against their main rival, the Tri-City Americans. But Tri-City’s arena, Toyota Center, is hosting illusionist Jay Owenhouse on Saturday, so the league schedule-makers gave Spokane a rare season opener at home.
Unfortunately for the Chiefs and their fans, Spokane won’t play at home again until Oct. 16. Until then, the Chiefs will play six consecutive road games, starting Friday at Cranbrook, British Columbia, against the Kootenay Ice.
“I’ve said it to anybody who will listen: I’m not a fan of the scheduling process the way it is now,” Chiefs general manager Tim Speltz said. “We lose so much control over what we’re doing as a team. It gets dictated to us. Sometimes you end up having to take your medicine.”
“The schedule’s a little bit weird every year,” Chiefs defenseman and last year’s captain Jason Fram (53 assists) said. “Whether it’s on the road or at home, it’s all over the map. … It will really show some of the character on this team if we can pull together and get a good start with a lot of games on the road.”
Spokane returns nine forwards, six defensemen and two goaltenders from the 2014-15 team that finished 34-34-3-1. The Chiefs are short on returning prolific goal scorers, as Mead High’s Kailer Yamamoto (23 goals) is the lone returner with more than 19.
“We’re going to have to find ways to score goals this year, and more important, we’re going to have to be better than we were in exhibition at keeping the puck out of the net,” said Chiefs head coach Don Nachbaur, starting his sixth season.
Spokane took a hit when Adam Helewka (44 goals, 43 assists) was drafted in the fourth round by the San Jose Sharks after his 19-year-old season. Helewka is currently on the roster of the American Hockey League’s San Jose Baracuda, but Speltz said this week that Helewka hadn’t signed a contract the last he’d heard.
“All we can do as coaches is to look in the locker room and work with the players we have here,” Nachbaur said. “Right now, the group that we have is the part that’s in our control.”
The current Chiefs roster features nine rookies, including five forwards.
“I think we projected that all three of those 16-year-old forwards, (Jaret) Anderson-Dolan, (Hayden) Ostir and (Ethan) McIndoe, were ready and they proved that they are,” Speltz said. “And we sure thought that those three 17-year-old “D” men, (Jeff) Faith, (Dalton) Hamaliuk and (Jake) Toporowski, would be of age, and they came in and showed that they were ready.”
Besides Fram, the Chiefs’ other 20-year-old players are goalie Garret Hughson (2.80 goals-against average, .902 save percentage) and forward Riley Whittingham (19 goals, 14 assists).
“Being the oldest guys on the team, you have to be able to lead a group of kids with big things or small things,” Fram said. “And you also have to produce numbers or whatever it is that you bring to the table.”