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Spokane Chiefs training camp opens with plenty of changes in store for new season

UPDATED: Thu., Aug. 24, 2017, 6:33 p.m.

The weather forecast is calling for temperatures in the 90s for the next few days and most folks are setting their plans for the last weekend of the summer before Labor Day and the kids go back to school.

But inside the Spokane Arena on Thursday, it looked, felt and sounded like winter.

The temperature in the building was considerable cooler than the sunny low-80s outdoors. There were folks bustling around the building – fans, media, stadium workers and team employees.

And on the ice, there was the indescribable, but instantly recognizable, sound of skates cutting ice and the occasional crashing of players into the boards as the first day of Spokane Chiefs training camp kicked off with its initial training camp scrimmage.

“Team Ryan,” named after Carolina Hurricane forward Derek Ryan, faced off against “Team Johnson,” named of course for the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Tyler Johnson – both of whom not only played for the Chiefs, but grew up in Spokane.

A third team, named after former Anaheim Mighty Ducks forward Kevin Sawyer, played later in the day.

“It’s always good when Derek, Tyler come back,” Chiefs owner Bobby Brett said. “And who would have ever thought that 10 years after they played here that they’d have a team in camp called ‘Team Ryan.’ So we have Team Ryan, Team Johnson … so it’s pretty neat when the hometown kids do well.”

The theme of the day – and perhaps for the season – was change, as the 2017-18 season will be the first with a new head coach in seven seasons, with longtime Western Hockey League coach Don Nachbaur – the winningest coach in Chiefs’ history – in Los Angeles with the Kings as an assistant to John Stevens. The two played together with the Philadelphia Flyers in the ’80s.

Behind the bench this season will be Dan Lambert, 47, a longtime WHL player, assistant and coach, who also has head coaching experience in the American Hockey League with the Rochester Americans and a season as an assistant in the NHL with the Buffalo Sabres.

The team also recently added Stanley Cup champion, Olympic silver medalist and World Cup gold medalist Adam Deadmarsh to the coaching staff, bringing in more NHL experience and point of view.

Along with the coaching changes, the arena itself is undergoing a major facelift, as the north concourse – the side of the building where most fans enter – is under renovation to concession areas and under construction of a new suite on the main level.

Brett is proud of the changes in the arena to keep it first-class barn in the league.

“I look back at (the arena) as it’s 22 years old and it sure doesn’t look 22 years old,” Brett said. “What they’ve done in improvements to make it relevant. I think everybody looks at arenas and they say the useful life of an arena is 20-25 years. This one’s going to be relevant and we’re at 22 years and if we started over today, of course, we’d do some things differently – but not much. So I think this arena, this site is going to serve the community well for the next 20 years.”

It’s been a tumultuous couple of months for Lambert, who spent several weeks in the moving and house-hunting process, but he’s happy it’s time to get back to business.

“It’s been a long summer, waiting for this day and it’s finally here,” Lambert said during a break in practice on Thursday. “It was great to get to see some of our players’ faces – not just names but now faces, skating styles and everything else. It was a good first day of practices.”

Lambert spent most of the morning putting faces to names and getting adjusted to his squad, which features 62 players in camp this season, including returning stars Kailer Yamamoto, Jaret Anderson-Dolan, Hudson Elynuik and Ty Smith.

“Typically, if you’re a second- or third-year coach, you’re looking at the newer guys more because you already know what the veterans bring,” Lambert said. “I don’t have that luxury right now. I really have to pay attention to everybody and see what their strengths are, see maybe areas where we need to work at. I think that’s kind of my mindset going in and also taking a look at the young picks that we have and see if we feel there’s a lot of potential there.

“Obviously, things aren’t going to be perfect the first day. And they might not be perfect either on the 100th day. But the growth is nice to see. This is training camp. These guys are expected to work and they’re expected to compete in these scrimmages. So its going to be a fun week.”

Brett was particularly excited about all the new aspects of the team.

“Change is good, especially when our people are moving up,” Brett said, referencing Nachbaur going to the Kings and former team trainer Todd Daniels taking a similar position with the AHL Tucson Roadrunners in the Phoenix Coyotes organization.

“I think you’ll see the veteran players coming back with a little more sense of urgency to immediately make a good impression on the new coach,” Brett added.

With all the changes, though, there are some familiarities.

The team returns 21 players from last year’s squad, including Yamamoto, who was drafted in the first round of the NHL draft No. 22 overall by the Edmonton Oilers, and Anderson-Dolan, selected in the second round No. 41 overall by the Kings.

Perhaps the most interesting story in camp belongs to a player not quite in uniform yet. Winger Jake McGrew was taken in the sixth round of the draft by the San Jose Sharks despite not playing last season, missing the campaign rehabbing a lower-body injury.

“We were real surprised Jake McGrew got drafted,” Brett said. “We knew teams liked him, but it’s a testament to Jake that he gets drafted after not playing a game (last season). He got drafted off two exhibition games. But I think San Jose made a great, great move on that one. He’s now back, just starting to skate and we should see him full contact in the next month.”

And defensemen Ty Smith is already being mentioned as a potential top-10 pick in next year’s draft.

“We all know with Ty, every team he’s on he’s either the captain or assistant captain,” Brett boasted. “He plays in all the international competitions, but those early rankings had him in the top 10 so that’s all good news.”

Camp continues Thursday and Friday at the Arena and culminates on Sunday with the Red-White Game at 1 p.m. All scrimmages and the Red-White Game are free and open to the public.

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