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Trip down Memorial Lane: ‘Scouts were high’ on 1990-91 Spokane Chiefs team loaded with talent

By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

Just as the Spokane Chiefs were completing the franchise’s first Western Hockey League championship and the run to its first of two Memorial Cup victories, the San Jose Sharks were completing their preparations for their first NHL draft, as an expansion team.

In the eyes of Sharks scouts, there was a lot to like about the Chiefs.

They had Pat Falloon, who had a knack for scoring goals.

They had Ray Whitney, a player who Sharks general manager Jack Ferreira said “could play anything.”

They had Kerry Toporowski, as good an enforcer as anyone at the junior level then, Ferreira said.

As it turned out, Sharks scouts liked that trio so much, they took all three. On June 22, 1991, they selected Falloon second overall, Whitney 23rd and Toporowski 67th – three of the franchise’s first four selections.

It is still the only time three Chiefs players have gone to the same NHL team in one draft.

“It’s rare that you take guys from one team, I can tell you that,” Ferreira said. “It just worked out that way. Scouts were high on them. They liked them.”

They weren’t the only ones who did.

In all, 13 members of the 1991 Memorial Cup champions were drafted between 1989 and 1993. That included five in the draft one month after the Chiefs won the title in Quebec City, and two more the year after that.

“There’s a number of guys that were a part of that success and were given opportunity,” said Tim Speltz, the Chiefs’ general manager at the time. “Sometimes, that’s all they need to show they belong.”

While most of those 13 went on to play professionally at some level, just five of them – Falloon, Whitney, Steve Junker, Scott Bailey and Trevor Kidd – plus the undrafted defenseman Jon Klemm, went on to play any games in the NHL.

But the impact of those five was significant, as was the impact of those games on the five.

“I just remember thinking how well we did and how dominant we were in the (Memorial Cup) tournament,” said Steve Junker, who went 92nd overall to the New York Islanders in 1991, “(and wondering), ‘How did more guys not get drafted?’ ”

A ‘thrilling’ baptism into the NHL

Of the six who played in the NHL, Junker’s career was the shortest. He played five regular-season games for the Islanders in 1993.

But before that regular-season NHL debut, he played three playoff games in 1993: Games 6 and 7 against the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals against the eventual champion Montreal Canadiens.

“It was thrilling, to say the least,” said Junker, who now lives on the outskirts of Castlegar, British Columbia. “A lot of better hockey players didn’t get that opportunity.”

After that, Junker bounced around the western United States, playing in the International Hockey League for four years before heading to Germany for 13 more seasons.

He and his wife raised their two sons there.

Junker also coached the Castlegar Rebels of the Kootenay International Junior (B) League for three seasons.

“It was a lot of fun, very exciting and way more exciting than I thought it was gonna be,” he said. “The big wins were just as exciting as they were when I was a player.”

Netminders get their shots

On the 1991 team, Kidd was brought in to share the goaltending load with Scott Bailey, the incumbent starter in net.

Kidd had already been drafted: 11th overall by the Calgary Flames in 1990. He went on to play 387 NHL regular-season games over 12 seasons, plus another 19 games in the playoffs.

Bailey still got his chances, too: He was taken in the fifth round of the 1992 draft by the Boston Bruins. Bailey played just 19 games in the NHL but kept his professional career going until 2004, suiting up for 12 franchises.

“He was a good goalie. He could play in the nets,” said Bryan Maxwell, Chiefs coach from 1989 to 1994. “Not a very big guy, but very athletic.”

Falloon, Whitney shine

Of those drafted Chiefs players, their two top scorers made the biggest mark in the NHL. And their showing in the Memorial Cup was a big reason why Ferreira and the Sharks took both of them.

“Especially when you’re trying to evaluate talent,” said Ferreira, who is now a senior advisor with the Minnesota Wild, “you look at players and you want them in a good game against a good team, in critical games, like the playoffs, or the game that gets them into first place.”

Falloon spent nine seasons in the NHL and played 575 regular-season games plus another 66 in the playoffs. He is just one of seven Chiefs players selected in the first round of the NHL draft and, at second overall, the highest taken.

“You kinda look for those natural scorers, and Pat was that,” Ferreira said of Falloon, who scored 146 goals in three seasons in Spokane.

But Ferreira said he was just as high on Whitney, who was slightly smaller than his linemate but just as prolific – with 141 goals in three seasons – and a better playmaker.

“I told the scouts during that period we were getting ready for the draft that Ray Whitney was all as good a player as Pat was,” Ferreira said. “I personally thought Ray was a more complete player. He wasn’t just a scorer. He was a playmaker.”

Whitney went on to prove Ferreira right: He had an NHL career twice as long as Falloon’s, playing 22 seasons with eight teams.

Whitney spent the first five seasons of his career with San Jose, four of those overlapping Falloon’s time with the Sharks.

From there, though, Falloon’s career began to wane. In 2000, he played his final NHL game, in the second round of the playoffs with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He never won a Stanley Cup.

Whitney’s best years were still ahead of him: His four highest single-season point totals all came between 2001 and 2014, when he retired. In the middle of that, in 2006, he won a Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes, scoring three goals in the seven-game finals against the Edmonton Oilers.

“I was expecting to win the Memorial Cup, that young arrogance,” Whitney said. “The depth of our team. We knew we were good and had a shot to win. When you get to the NHL, it’s a different animal, and it’s so much harder to do. The parity is so great.”

Whitney also was never the prolific goal scorer in the NHL that he was in the WHL, but that is a transition that few actually make, he said.

“I went from 185 points (in 1990-91), and then you get to the NHL, it took me seven years to figure out how to play there,” said Whitney, who works in the NHL’s Department of Player Safety. “Everybody’s big, everybody’s strong, everybody’s fast.”

By the end, Whitney had carved out a lengthy career: He played 108 playoff games and 1,330 regular-season contests, the 55th most in the history of the NHL and the most of any player taken in the 1991 draft. He finished with 385 goals and 679 assists, the most by any former Chiefs player.

Since that 1991 season, 62 players have been drafted as members of the Chiefs.

The most recent was forward Adam Beckman, who made a run at Whitney’s single-season goals total – 67 in 1990-91, a record Valeri Bure beat by one goal the following season – before the WHL canceled its season with four regular-season games remaining last March. Beckman had a league-high 48 goals through 64 games.

It is likely at least one more Chiefs player will be taken at the 2020 NHL draft this week.

Yet the history of the Memorial Cup team illustrated two maxims that continue to be true about the NHL draft.

First: Being selected is no guarantee of NHL success, with eight draftees never playing a game.

And second: Just because a player isn’t picked, that doesn’t mean he can’t win a Stanley Cup.

Klemm, the Chiefs’ 20-year-old captain that Memorial Cup season, testifies to that.

Up next: From Halifax to Denver, Jon Klemm finds his place in the NHL.

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