Ethan McIndoe took the ice at Eagles Ice Arena during practice recently, the old man and a sea of 16- and 17-year-old skaters.
The team ran drills with a skeleton crew, limited by the absence of eight Chiefs players attending NHL rookie camps and a few more nursing injuries.
“It definitely made me feel a bit older,” McIndoe said of that practice. “I’m just trying to be a good example, showing them what it’s all about to be a Western League player, and for me in practice, (that means) hard passes, keeping the tempo high.”
A few days later, the Chiefs were so shorthanded, the Tri-City Americans agreed to play the entirety of their preseason game 4-on-4. The Chiefs dressed just three defensemen.
McIndoe didn’t play – he is awaiting official medical clearance as he recovers from an undisclosed injury – but he has practiced in a noncontact capacity. He said he hopes to return in October; the Chiefs open their regular season Friday at Kamloops.
In the meantime, the 20-year-old forward continues to train and condition in a manner teammates said he always has, settling into a leadership role that is crucial to the success of Western Hockey League teams.
“I might not be the smartest student or the most talented hockey player,” McIndoe said, “but I work as hard as I can.”
McIndoe has played 263 WHL games, all with the Chiefs. If he plays 45 games this season, he would climb into the franchise’s top 10 in games played.
Playing so many games in one spot is a rare feat, and the Chiefs’ top-10 list is populated with players who had solid WHL careers and then meandered between collegiate and pro leagues after that.
Atop the list is Brandin Cote, who played 352 games across parts of six seasons in Spokane, from 1996 to 2002. Cote played nine more seasons of hockey but never a game in the NHL.
In fact, none of those 10 players suited up for a single NHL game.
Yet they proved to be versatile, talented and consistent enough for the Chiefs to roster them for four, five and sometimes six consecutive seasons.
WHL teams are allowed up to three 20-year-olds, and if McIndoe ends up as one of the Chiefs’ overage players, this would be his fifth season in Spokane. None of the other 20-year-olds, and there are four others, can claim that.
“As a player, he’s really a coach’s dream, as far as the way he plays,” said Adam Deadmarsh, Chiefs assistant coach and a nine-year NHL veteran. “The fact is, he shows up each and every night, and he plays the same way, a heart-and-soul type player. He lays it all on the line each and every night. You know exactly what he’s gonna bring every night.”
A regular right away
The Chiefs’ third-round selection in the 2014 WHL bantam draft, McIndoe first broke into the WHL as a 16-year-old a year later, for the 2015-16 season. He played 62 games, scored eight goals and had seven assists.
Right then, he made an impression on his teammates.
“I just remember him being a real good guy, a good team guy,” said Evan Fiala, then an 18-year-old Chiefs defenseman and now a second-year player at the University of Saskatchewan. “He cared about the team and was selfless in that way, and also a guy who was always working hard.”
McIndoe credited Fiala and Wyatt Johnson, an assistant captain for that 2015-16 Chiefs team, as players he looked up to as a new kid in the league.
Johnson joined the Chiefs in the middle of that season, on Jan. 1. Johnson was a 20-year-old then, and when he arrived in Spokane the veteran had to make amends with the 16-year-old McIndoe: Just two months earlier, in a game against Red Deer, McIndoe had been in his first WHL fight – with Johnson.
“I took some beef about fighting a 16-year-old when I was 20,” said Johnson, who, like Fiala, now plays at the University of Saskatchewan. “Even at that age, he was one of the hardest-working guys and wanted to get better every day. … He almost felt like a bit of a younger brother.”
McIndoe returned to the Chiefs the next season (2016-17), played 67 games and upticked his scoring with 17 goals and nine assists. But perhaps more important, he started to carve out a niche as a guy who could wreak a little havoc in front of the net.
“Your first year, maybe first year and a half, is all about learning,” McIndoe said. “You gotta be able to find something you’re good at, in my opinion, and do it every day. That can help you in the long run.”
He recalled a game early that season, when injuries to teammates pressed him into power-play duty.
“I was right in front of the net, and got a lucky bounce, did everything right and scored a goal,” McIndoe said. “That’s when I knew that’s where I’m gonna be, and I took off after that.”
He scored five power-play goals that season, six the next and four more a season ago. Through four seasons, he has 17 power-play goals, 62 goals overall and 61 assists. The last three seasons, he has ranked between fifth and eighth on the team in goals.
He has also improved greatly in front of the net, Deadmarsh said. While the team doesn’t officially track a statistic for puck deflections, it is clear to Deadmarsh that McIndoe has worked at doing so.
“If you watch, he gets his stick on a lot more pucks now,” Deadmarsh said. “If you’re a net-front guy, you need to be able to do that. In the playoffs last year, he was effective in that area.”
Teammate and friend Jake McGrew, another 20-year-old who is still with the San Jose Sharks, watched the Chiefs’ playoff opener last year from his couch, “dying sick,” he said.
But that game, he said, was among the best he’d seen McIndoe play.
“I was watching it online, and I remember thinking to myself, he ramped it up a notch,” McGrew said. “He was playing like he wanted to win and like he wanted to make a statement.”
McIndoe scored a goal in that 5-2 victory, his first of six goals during the Chiefs’ run to the conference semifinals last spring. Only Adam Beckman (eight) and Riley Woods (seven) scored more during their 15 playoff games.
And yet, here McIndoe stayed in early September, due to the injury that kept him out of the Chiefs’ preseason games so far this year. Had McIndoe been healthy, he definitely would have attended a camp, McGrew said.
“He had to do what was best for his body,” McGrew said.
McIndoe was invited to a camp two years ago, in June 2017, by the Toronto Maple Leafs. But come fall, he wasn’t asked back, nor did he receive any invites in 2018.
“Personally, I don’t think I played to my full potential,” McIndoe said. “I think I maybe tried to be somebody I wasn’t on the ice, and it hurt me in the end.”
But, he said, that “lit a fire in my belly,” and McIndoe is intent on getting another chance after this season. It’s an opportunity teammate Jack Finley said he hopes McIndoe still gets.
“We saw a good example of that in Riley Woods last year,” Finley said of Woods, who signed an AHL agreement after his 20-year-old season. “I think Dewey’s got that in the back of his head. He’s just worked his butt off.”
Yet it is clear to Finley and other Chiefs players that McIndoe takes seriously his responsibility to mentor the younger guys on the team. Just as Johnson and Fiala looked out for McIndoe, so McIndoe said he wants to look out for players like Finley.
“It’s a constantly revolving door: Young guys coming in, old guys moving out,” McIndoe said. “When I leave here, I wanna know that I left the team in a better place.”
That rotation of mentors is core to the Chiefs’ organization, head coach Manny Viveiros said.
“When you have veteran players who have gone through the program, this is the Chiefs way. This is how we do things,” Viveiros said. “We have kids that are not only good hockey players but good citizens: how they are in public, how they are with the guest families, how they are in school. And this is how the young guys see how the veterans act.”
McIndoe isn’t certain when he’ll be back on the ice. That, he and coaches said, is up to the doctors, though they all expect it to be soon. And if he is indeed one of the 20-year-olds the team keeps this season, McIndoe is ready to bear the responsibilities associated with that status.
“Every year I’ve been in this league, there’s a little bit more responsibility and ownership that you’re gonna take upon yourself,” McIndoe said. “This year, it’s gonna be the most I’ve had to deal with. … The main thing now is to get healthy, get back in the lineup and carry on where we left off in the playoffs.”
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