The air temperature outside the Spokane Chiefs’ idling team bus was about minus 4 when Trevor Kidd first made his way onto it in Brandon, Manitoba.
It was January 21, 1991, and less than 12 hours earlier Kidd’s team, the Brandon Wheat Kings, had scored four third-period goals to hand the slumping Chiefs their fourth straight defeat, a 5-4 overtime loss. Kidd had been given the night off.
That season, the Wheat Kings weren’t good. They finished with just 40 points, the third fewest in the franchise’s history.
But Kidd was good. Quite good, actually. He’d won a gold medal with Team Canada at World Juniors just a few weeks earlier, and six months before that, the Calgary Flames had selected him 11th overall in the 1990 NHL draft.
His goals-against average – above 4 – and save percentage – below .900 – didn’t look great on the stat sheet, but when a goalie faces 60 to 70 shots a night, as Kidd said he was, the bar is a little bit lower.
“When I was in Brandon,” Kidd said, “it was all about survival.”
The Chiefs saw Kidd as the missing piece on a championship-caliber roster, one that proved to be the most prolific goal-scoring squad in franchise history – its 435 is nearly a goal more per game than the next-highest total of 374 – and also the most intimidating, with 3,664 penalty minutes, fourth most in a single Western Hockey League season.
After that loss in Brandon, Spokane general manager Tim Speltz finalized a trade to acquire Kidd, along with 20-year-old defenseman Bart Cote, and bring them back to Spokane on the team bus, which was still conveniently right there, for a playoff run.
“The bus sat idling, waiting for me to get my stuff together and get on the bus at 7 o’clock,” Kidd said. “There was no time to dwell or think about it.”
What followed was perhaps the best 41-game stretch of hockey in Spokane Chiefs history. They went 17-5-0 the rest of the regular season, and then won 18 of 19 games in the postseason, first winning the WHL championship and then dominating the Memorial Cup tournament in a manner few teams have.
The trade was a risk, certainly. The Chiefs gave up Bobby House, a 17-year-old winger who had 30 points in 38 games that season and who was eventually drafted 66th overall by the Chicago Blackhawks the following June. They also gave up 15-year-old Marty Murray, a top prospect who went on to score 132 goals in four seasons in Brandon.
And it wasn’t that Speltz or the team’s players lacked confidence in Scott Bailey, the starting goalie. Ray Whitney, the team’s star forward, said he thought they still would have won the Memorial Cup with Bailey in net.
But the chance to get better at the deadline was too good to pass up, Speltz said.
“We had to give up a big part of our future, Marty Murray. He was a tough piece to give up,” said Speltz, who is now the head of amateur scouting for the Toronto Maple Leafs. “But we looked at it and said we have a chance to win a championship. Fortunately, it (came) to fruition. Kidd was the piece that put us over the top, for sure.”
Getting past the Blazers
The top, at that point, was the Kamloops Blazers. In six seasons under future Stanley Cup-winning coach Ken Hitchcock from 1984 to 1990, the Blazers finished with at least 100 points four times and won two WHL championships, including the 1990 title that propelled Hitchcock into the NHL as an assistant coach with the Philadelphia Flyers.
Under another future NHL head coach, Tom Renney, the Blazers finished the 1990-91 season five points ahead of the Chiefs in the West Division and in first place.
They were led by the defensive duo of Daryl Sydor and Scott Niedermayer, two of the best defensemen to play in the WHL – certainly if their NHL careers are included in the reckoning.
The 18-year-old Sydor was named the WHL’s top defenseman in 1991 after scoring 27 goals and adding 78 assists. Already a first-round pick the year before by the Los Angeles Kings, Sydor went on to win two Stanley Cups in a 1,291-game NHL career.
Niedermayer, a year younger, had 82 points with the Blazers in 1990-91 and later won four Stanley Cups in a career nearly as long (1,263 games).
“They were very good. They were a problem for us,” Whitney said. “Niedermayer at the time was 17, and he was a pretty special player.”
After finishing the regular season as the West Division’s second-place team, the Chiefs opened the playoffs that year against the Seattle Thunderbirds and had little trouble, winning the best-of-nine series 5-1.
The Blazers ousted the Tri-City Americans in seven games, setting up a West Division final with the Chiefs. But there was a notable absence: Niedermayer was still out with an injury and wasn’t going to play.
But to Whitney, that didn’t necessarily matter.
The Chiefs were certainly a gifted offensive team that season: Whitney’s 67 goals that year and Pat Falloon’s 64 are still the second- and fourth-most in a single season in team history. They also had four other players score at least 30 goals that year, including another midseason acquisition, Cam Danyluk, and finished with a team goal differential of 160 – scoring, on average, two more goals per game than their opponents.
Yet that wasn’t the only way they could win. They were tough, too, Whitney said.
Even though Kamloops eliminated Spokane in the playoffs the year before, the Chiefs were confident going back there in 1991.
“It was an intimidating place to play, but we brought the intimidation to them, and that changed the entire playoffs for us,” said Shane Maitland, who played 14 of 15 WHL playoff games during the Chiefs’ Cup run. “Most of us were back, and we kinda knew what they had, what we had, and we just had such vast talent from top to bottom.
“You wanna run and gun? We’ll beat you 9-8. You wanna play defense? We’ll beat you 2-1. And if you wanna get silly, we’ll beat you all over the ice.”
They had guys like Kerry Toporowski, the league leader in penalty minutes, that protected top-liners like Whitney, Falloon and Steve Junker. Even their coaches, Bryan Maxwell and assistant Gary Braun, were tough, Whitney said.
“In those days, you could win by intimidation,” Whitney said, “and we did.”
The Chiefs swept the Blazers 5-0.
Then they swept East Division champion Lethbridge 4-0.
Crowned as WHL champions for the first time in franchise history, the Chiefs were on to the Memorial Cup.
At ease out East
Their strut continued into Quebec City, which hosted the Memorial Cup tournament that season.
Whitney said he had no doubt they were going to win it.
Junker said he wasn’t entirely sure at first.
“I remember being extremely nervous,” Junker said. “When we walked into the (Colisee de Quebec) in Quebec City, and the opening game of the whole tournament was happening, everybody just looked so big and fast and they shot hard, and we thought, ‘Oh no, maybe we’re overmatched here.’ ”
But once Spokane got its chance on the ice in the four-team tournament of the Canadian Juniors’ best teams, it was clear the high-scoring Chiefs belonged.
They defeated Drummondville, the runner-up from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, 7-3 to start their round-robin games. Two days later the Chiefs beat Chicoutimi, the QMJHL champions, 7-1.
“I think in every game we got out to a lead in the first few minutes, which was a nice feeling,” Junker said. “I don’t think any of the games really came down to the wire.”
Spokane finished the round-robin with an 8-4 win over Sault Ste. Marie of the Ontario Hockey League, and then it drummed Drummondville 5-1 in the championship game to claim the Memorial Cup title.
None of the games were close. The Chiefs scored 27 goals in four games. No other team scored even half as many.
Falloon was named tournament MVP after recording 12 points in four games. He, Whitney and Brent Thurston were named to the tournament’s six-player all-star team, filling all three forward spots.
“I’ve heard a lot of guys talk over the years,” Thurston said. “I think if you look at a team from the trade deadline through the playoffs and Cup, I could argue the case: That was one of the top teams of all time.”
It was a crowning achievement for the franchise, which Brett Sports had purchased just 13 months earlier, in April 1990. The long playoff run helped boost the team to a profit, managing partner Bobby Brett said, helping stabilize what had been a rocky financial situation.
Four years later, the Chiefs were playing in the new Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena.
‘A four-year cycle’
Most of the team’s top players left after that season, including a handful that went on to careers in the NHL. Five members of the team were drafted just a month later, in June 1991.
Kidd began his 12-year NHL career the next season. The team that traded him away did get better after he left: Brandon reached the WHL championship game four seasons later, losing in six games to Kamloops.
Kidd said the run to a Memorial Cup was crucial to his development because every game was intense, every mistake magnified.
With the Chiefs, a goal in the first 20 seconds could be the difference in the game, as could a goal in the last minute of the period or the first minute of another one, he said.
“All those little mental resets, checkpoints, are completely different with the team that we had,” Kidd said. “Then there’s other things: Some games you have a warmup and you don’t feel it, to fight through that, to go out and play well and not let the confidence get too high and the lows get too low. All those things are completely different on a team when you’re expected to win.”
Without Whitney, Falloon, captain Jon Klemm and many other leaders from the Memorial Cup team, the Chiefs won a playoff series the next season before losing to Seattle in the second round.
“Everyone who’s played knows it’s a four-year cycle,” said Maitland, who works in law enforcement in Spokane. “We had some pizzazz with (Valeri) Bure, but obviously it wasn’t the same because we didn’t have the heart and soul of our squad.”
Maitland played one more year of juniors, half in Spokane and then half in Tacoma, where he was traded midway through the 1991-92 season. But he eventually settled back in Spokane.
To Maitland – a native of Terrace, British Columbia, a town of about 15,000 people – the memories are still near. Most of his Chiefs teammates were small-town Canadian kids, too, he said, which is part of why it was such a big deal to them.
“Everyone I’ve ever talked to said it’s the hardest trophy to win because you have such a short window,” Maitland said. “Most guys play two years, maybe three. … It was just an amazing thing.”
For a few members of that team, though, it wasn’t the last cup they would hoist. Some went on to the “Holy Grail,” as Maitland called it.
Some got to raise the Stanley Cup.
Coming next: A month after raising the Cup, five Chiefs hear their name at the NHL draft.
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