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Blanchette: Chiefs coach Don Nachbaur has left his mark in Spokane

Spokane Chiefs coach Don Nachbaur has notched 220 victories, just three shy of former coach Mike Babcock’s record. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane Chiefs coach Don Nachbaur has notched 220 victories, just three shy of former coach Mike Babcock’s record. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Not quite 40 years ago, when Don Nachbaur was a boy on skates in the game he coaches now, he remembers being whistled to center ice at practice, being tossed a pair of boxing gloves and paired against one teammate inside a circle of them.

“And we were all like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ” he recalled.

He also recalls, deep down, loving it a little – at least once he linked it as a lesson in hockey’s one sacred art: competing. There are other arts – work, yes, and a level of skill to be developed, and other familiar buzzwords of the game, like leadership and accountability (though you never hear “play” much anymore).

But the compete thing, that’s what hooked Don Nachbaur.

Now he tries to instill the concept in the Spokane Chiefs, and while the methods aren’t as nakedly brutal as those he experienced (“I’ve mellowed,” he allowed), surely his young players occasionally look at one another in an are-you-kidding-me moment, too.

Just the nature of the beast as the generations turn over.

“In hockey, ‘compete’ comes down to winning one-on-one battles all over the ice,” he said. “Win enough and you’re going to win the hockey game.”

Success he tends to judge night to night, but we’re coming up on a big-picture opportunity. With four more victories, Nachbaur will become the winningest coach in Chiefs history – mathematically, if not in banners hung.

His 220 regular-season victories in five-plus seasons leaves him three behind Mike Babcock who, yes, with six years behind the bench shares the distinction as Spokane’s longest-tenured coach. Longevity is an art, too. The average tenure of 11 Chiefs coaches is 2.8 seasons, and that doesn’t include eight interims or fill-ins. It’s little better around the Western Hockey League’s U.S. Division: 2.2 is the average stay at Tri-City, for instance, and 2.3 at Seattle.

Which is interesting, because Don Nachbaur did six seasons at each of those rinks, too.

His 651 WHL victories are seven behind Kamloops’ Don Hay, and the two of them figure to overtake the all-time leader, Ken Hodge (742), if they can make it through 2018 or so.

Nachbaur’s upcoming milestone may be inevitable, but it’s been a little stubborn – and he’s eager to get to it, but not for the sake of any stats. The Chiefs have dropped four straight heading into tonight’s game against Saskatoon at the Spokane Arena. Meanwhile, an unsually balanced Western Conference is accelerating the playoff tension: just 25 points separate No. 1 and No. 10.

Doesn’t leave much time to look back.

When he does, it’s not surprising that Nachbaur zeroes in on both franchise royalty like Tyler Johnson (“no fear in his game”), workers who ventured “out of their comfort zones” and on names often underappreciated, or at least underrated.

“Steven Kuhn was one of those guys,” he said. “Last year, Calder Brooks was one of those. Darren Kramer – a hard-working kid who wasn’t highly rated by hockey people.”

And here’s an eye-opening addition to that list: Jared Cowen.

The big defenseman from Nachbaur’s first Spokane team was hardly unsung – not as a first-round NHL draft choice. But he wasn’t always appreciated in a contemporary sports culture that expects elite talents to make every play.

“I know he was a lightning rod for fans and I was kind of shocked about that,” Nachbaur said. “But as a teammate, he was so valuable for us. I know most fans always want more of a guy like that. But I thought he was the Rock of Gibraltar.

“What I value in sport is being a good teammate.”

That first Nachbaur team reached the West finals; the four since have all made the playoffs but didn’t last past the second round. That’s not necessarily all so strange. The Chiefs had four straight seasons of 45 wins or more, with the attendant lower draft positioning. That’s junior hockey’s cycle. What’s notable is that to this point they’ve avoided that cycle’s lowest lows that visited the franchise after the first Memorial Cup, and in advance of the second.

In that respect, Nachbaur said he likes to think his teams have reflected his desire to overachieve. He also has a hole to fill. The scar from watching the Chiefs win the Memorial Cup in 2008 after edging his Tri-City team in a staggering seven-game West final remains.

“I’d like to win,” he said, not just referring to tonight or the handful of victories he needs to pass Babcock.

He understands the dimension it would add to his resume. He discovered that sort of thing as a player – he was a 44-goal scorer his final year in junior and envisioned himself as an NHL playmaker in the same vein, only to discover he was “just another guy.

“So I had to earn it,” he said. “We all do. But there’s a spot in hockey for everybody. You just have to find it.”

Soon enough, Don Nachbaur will find his atop a notable list.

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