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Spokane Chiefs prospects play waiting game as NHL draft dreams delayed

UPDATED: Thu., June 25, 2020

By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

When the National Hockey League gathered for its annual draft one year ago in Vancouver, British Columbia, Jack Finley was there to take it all in.

He was there because Jeff Finley, his father, was then the chief scout for the Detroit Red Wings, and Jack said he couldn’t help but think then about what would be coming a year later.

“It was my dream to be there with my family and hear my name getting picked and walk up there,” said the Spokane Chiefs forward and top draft prospect this year. “That getting canceled and not being able to go to Montreal, that was frustrating for sure.”

In draft projections, Finley has consistently landed in the third round, right about where Chiefs forward Adam Beckman – who went on to be the WHL Player of the Year in 2019-20 – was selected by the Minnesota Wild a year ago.

But with the NHL season poised to resume, the draft that was originally scheduled to be held this weekend has been postponed indefinitely, so Finley is at home in Kelowna, B.C., as the hockey world waits to see when it will finally return to the ice.

“We’re all in hockey because we love it,” said Jim Hammett, Chiefs assistant general manager. “It’s nice to have some down time, but there comes a point where you just want to get back at it and get some answers, and that’s what we’re wanting.”

Hammett also lives in Kelowna and is good friends with Jeff Finley. He said he is sad for the players – like Finley and other Chiefs players such as Bear Hughes, Eli Zummack and Luke Toporowski – whose progression toward the NHL is in stasis.

“In a way I feel badly for the players, because it’s taking away an experience they’ve been waiting for their whole life,” Hammett said. “The NHL draft, it’s every kid’s dream to be there and put the jersey on and go on stage or go to the table, and they’re not going to get that opportunity.”

The NHL will hold the first phase of its draft lottery on Friday and has plans for 24 of its teams to return to play later this summer.

Beckman and Finley were also invited to the Canadian National Junior Team development camp this offseason, but that will be online from July 27-31.

The COVID-19 pandemic led the WHL to cancel its playoffs, but the Chiefs’ scouting department has continued its work remotely, conducting the U.S. prospects draft and the wider WHL bantam draft via conference call. Hammett said both went well.

Team scouts are now preparing for the CHL import draft on Tuesday, but that is always based on video, Hammett said, so not much is different about it this year.

Last year, the Chiefs selected goaltender Lukas Parik at 43rd overall in the import draft; they will select 54th overall Tuesday.

Hammett has also spent much of this offseason updating the team’s prospects and potential training camp invitees as best he can.

“Unfortunately,” he said, “there are still more questions than answers.”

Hammett is preaching patience, planning along the league’s current course to open a two-week training camp on Sept. 15 with games beginning Oct. 2.

But with that September date subject to change, given what health authorities advise WHL officials, players are doing as much as they can on their own.

From his home in Alberta, Spokane head coach Manny Viveiros is preparing for the import draft and has been checking in with Chiefs players regularly. Most players have personal trainers helping them at home, and the team uses an app on which players log in daily to report on their workouts, Viveiros said.

Finley, who had 57 points in 61 games last season, has been able to skate some in Kelowna, and his interviews with NHL team officials have been held over video conference. Throughout the process, he said his dad – who played 708 NHL games and is a Winnipeg Jets scout – has been a huge help.

But if all plays out as league officials intend, Finley would get to play more games for the Chiefs before the NHL completes its draft. As much as he is looking forward to being drafted, he is eager to play.

“The mentality of our team is, next year’s our year,” Finley said.

“Whatever happens with all the stuff going on, everyone’s focused on winning a championship next year.”

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