Derek Humphreys came to the game of hockey like so many young athletes end up in any sport: His dad played it.
And for Humphreys, the sport took hold.
“I went to a Chiefs game when I was 7, and I just fell in love with it,” he said. “It’s been my passion ever since.”
Humphreys, in his second year playing for his hometown Spokane Braves, leads the team in goals (17) and points (34) through 38 games. He is in his 18-year-old season, meaning he has two more years of eligibility in the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League, though he hopes that this is not his final stop on the junior circuit.
“I’m trying to play as long as I can,” Humphreys said. “If I can move up to the Junior A level, of course I’m trying to do that.”
Humphreys’ experience with the Braves is common but not necessarily typical. The roads that have led the 20 players on the team’s current roster are more or less similar, but their paths after this season could diverge considerably.
“There’s a mix of guys who, they wanna play college or even Junior A, and some of them will start talking about how I want to be an architect, or I want to be an engineer, or I want to operate heavy equipment,” said assistant coach Mike Brunette, who paves roads for a living. “It is quite the range. And some of them realize this is probably as far as they’ll make it.
“We (coaches are) here because we love the game. We want to see kids go as far as they can.”
Junior hockey in Canada is split into three tiers. The top tier is the Western Hockey League, in which the Spokane Chiefs play. The WHL is one of three leagues that comprise the Canadian Hockey League.
Below that is Junior A, organized by province. British Columbia has the BCHL, and Alberta has the AJHL.
Underneath those are the Junior Bs, and the KIJHL is one of three such leagues in British Columbia. Spokane is the lone U.S. team in the KIJHL; most of the rest are in small towns, like Kimberley or Creston, while others are named for a geographic region like the Beaver Valley Nitehawks in Fruitvale, where Adam Deadmarsh grew up.
“The fanbase was great because it was town against town,” said Deadmarsh, an assistant coach with the Chiefs. “It was a great stepping stone toward major junior, too, because I was 15 when I played there, so I was playing against 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds, which really helped get me ready for (the WHL).”
Deadmarsh had 72 points in 35 games with the Nitehawks during the 1990-91 season. He moved the next year to Portland and played four seasons for the Winterhawks before a nine-year stint in the National Hockey League.
Dustin Donaghy, a former Chiefs player and now an assistant coach with the team, played in the KIJHL with Kimberley.
“From when I started at 15 until now, the league has definitely grown big time,” Donaghy said. “(The Braves are) developing players that can play at a higher level. … Mike Bay is obviously doing a tremendous job.”
Bay’s time with the Braves started in the mid-1990s. He coached the team for 13 years, then took five years off until rejoining the team before the 2018-19 season.
Just as Bay was coming back to the Braves, goalie Campbell Arnold and forward Bear Hughes were starting their time with the team. Led by a WHL draft pick in Arnold and a future WHL Rookie of the Year candidate in Hughes, the Braves reached the playoffs – 16 of the league’s 20 teams do so – for the first time in four seasons.
Hughes finished seventh in the league in points (66) and Arnold, as one of the team’s two 16-year-olds, had the 11th-best save percentage (91.3) in the league.
“Everybody just came to the rink everyday, ready, wanting to practice and get better,” Arnold said. “I wouldn’t be where I am today or play how I did this season without playing on that team.”
Arnold went 10-8-2 for the Chiefs this year before suffering a season-ending knee injury. He is also a big reason why the Chiefs landed Hughes: When general manager Scott Carter and then-head coach Dan Lambert came to check on their prospect Arnold, they couldn’t help but notice Hughes.
“They’re proof that if you put in the hard work and stick to it and do what the coaches say, there’s always a chance you could explode off,” current Braves defenseman Casey Noack said.
Noack started playing hockey when he was 4 and had season tickets to watch the Chiefs.
“I wanted to be one of the Chiefs,” he said. “That’s what got me into hockey.”
But Noack said he got burned out playing the sport and decided to take two years off as he finished up at East Valley High School. He played football instead and graduated in 2019.
Last summer, as he was weighing his options, he needed to get video of himself playing hockey, so he attended the Braves camp with his parents recording his play from the stands, “not thinking anything was gonna happen with it,” he said.
But he made the team, and decided staying home and attending community college made the most sense. By playing, he keeps his options open for next season and beyond.
“You never know who’s watching,” Noack said. “If the right person sees you at the right time, you might get an opportunity.”
Sixteen of the Braves’ players are from the Spokane-Coeur d’Alene area, not considered a hockey hotbed. That means some of them choose to play elsewhere during their early teen years in the hopes of developing skills and getting noticed by scouts.
Alex Moore, for example, moved to Kelowna, British Columbia, when he was 12 to attend the Pursuit of Excellence Hockey Academy. He was there for two years and has been with the Braves for the last two. This is his 17-year-old season.
Throughout his career, Moore has attended showcases in Las Vegas, Calgary, Alberta, and in Colorado – “I’ve been all over,” he said – to attempt to draw the attention of scouts.
He might end up at Air Force next year, he said, after he graduates from Ferris High School. Playing in a Junior A league is also a possibility.
“I’ve been getting a little bit of interest,” Moore said. “I’ve been putting interest out, so hopefully something catches.”
But Donaghy is hoping that fewer players will seek that attention elsewhere as the sport grows in Spokane. In addition to his duties with the Chiefs, Donaghy is the division director for 14U, 16U and 18U with the Spokane Americans Youth Hockey Association.
Donaghy played in Junior B, coached at Junior A and has played and coached in the WHL. Four players from the SAYHA’s 16U team are now with the Braves, Donaghy said.
“My job is to get them ready for the next level, and I’m finding that I have to do a lot of teaching,” Donaghy said. “Not so much system stuff, but I have to almost go back two, three years of development for them to get them ready.”
Spokane Youth Hockey also has teams at 8U, 10U and 12U. Its hockey staff and coaches are trying to build up the program, Donaghy said, so that parents and players are less inclined to go elsewhere.
Growing the program is a process, and Donaghy pointed to Hughes’ example to illustrate that players can develop locally.
“Bear and the success he’s had hopefully shines light to the parents who think they need to shift their kids away to these academies, or to any other place,” Donaghy said, “where really, if they look in their backyard, most associations have exactly what they need.”
But Derek Ryan said that is not an issue particularly unique to Spokane.
Ryan, the Spokane native who plays for the NHL’s Calgary Flames, played two seasons with the Braves – including a 125-point season in 2003-04 – and three with the Chiefs.
Ryan helps out the Braves, showing up in the offseason but also helping pay for player gear. Last season, Bay said, Ryan funded the purchase of hockey bags for all the players.
“That’s just a product of playing and living in a smaller hockey market,” Ryan said. “Players and parents are wanting to play in the best area where their kid can get noticed. I’m of the belief that if your kid is good enough, he’s gonna get noticed wherever he is.”
The KIJHL’s teams see their roles differently across the league, Bay said. Some will stock up on older players so as to compete every year for the league title.
Bay doesn’t take that approach. The Braves have 11 players who are 16 or 17 and are usually the younger team on the ice. But that suits him and the team better, he said.
“It’s easier for us to work with guys who want to be players than to have just guys who wanna hang out and play hockey,” Bay said.
The fact that many players see the Braves as a stepping stone rather than their last stop makes for a better experience, he said.
The Braves are 16-17-2 and hold third place in the five-team Neil Murdoch Division, positioned to reach the playoffs again with 11 games left in the regular season. Extending the season and getting at least one playoff series is certainly part of Bay’s goals.
But it’s not the only one.
“It’s about being a better person, being a better hockey player, making the playoffs and leaving this a better place for the next group,” Bay said. “That’s it. That’s really it.”
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