For Luke Toporowski and Bear Hughes, the last month playing somewhere other than Spokane has been a journey into the unfamiliar.
Hughes, a Post Falls native, said he had never before spent time in Fargo, North Dakota, where he is now playing out the rest of the season in the United States Hockey League.
And even though Toporowski, now in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, is much closer to his family home in Iowa, “home” for him is as much Spokane, where his uncle, dad and brother played during their hockey careers as well.
“Spokane is the No. 1 spot for me, and it always will be,” the 19-year-old Toporowski said, “but at the time it was important to get games in, and there was a lot of uncertainty. I didn’t wanna risk going almost a full year and a half with no games.”
That is how Hughes and Toporowski – two of the Spokane Chiefs’ top scorers a season ago – ended up in the USHL in mid-January, a few weeks before the Western Hockey League announced that it would indeed mount a shortened season this spring.
They will stay with their current teams until the end of the USHL season, and under the terms of their loans will only be allowed to play a maximum of six games with the Chiefs this season.
That leaves room for other, younger Chiefs players to step up in their absence, and it is possible that Toporowski, Hughes and goalie Lukas Parik will not play at all in the WHL this spring.
“We could have forbidden those players of playing (in the USHL), but if we never got back playing, I’d feel terrible,” said Chiefs general manager Scott Carter, who also granted goalie Parik’s request to play in the USHL this season with the Dubuque Fighting Saints.
The Chiefs’ trio of 2001-born players are among just nine WHL players overall who are currently on loan with a USHL team.
The WHL has set a March 19 start date for its U.S. Division teams, including the Chiefs, but at the time Hughes and Toporowski went to the USHL a restart was far from a sure thing.
Hughes is also an NHL prospect – the Washington Capitals took him in the fifth round last year – and he said the team wanted him to be playing games, if there was an opportunity to be had.
“I just felt like coming to Fargo, I’m guaranteed 35 regular-season games and then there’s a good chance to go into the playoffs, maybe make a run,” Hughes said. “Obviously I’m happy now my teammates get to play hockey again, but at the same time it’s kinda weird not being there (with them).”
Hughes has two goals and four assists in 13 games with the Fargo Force, who are 19-11-2 this season as of Saturday, eight points ahead of the second place Omaha Lancers in the Western Conference.
The Sioux Falls Stampede, for whom Toporowski is playing, are 13-12-3 and in fifth place in the same conference. Toporowski has four goals and seven assists in eight games after tallying one of each in a 4-3 victory over Sioux City on Friday.
Parik, a Los Angeles Kings draft pick in 2019, is 2-2-1 with Dubuque and saw his goals against average rise over the weekend to 3.15.
Parik, Hughes and Toporowski are all eligible to return to the WHL for the 2021-22 season as 20-year-olds, though they would also be eligible to play in the American Hockey League then, too.
Part of USA Hockey, the USHL is considered the top junior league in the country, competing with colleges and Canadian junior leagues for players. The USHL’s style of play is different, Toporowski said.
“There’s a lot more defense here, and it’s a lot harder to get offensive chances. Everything’s pretty locked down,” he said. “You think of (the WHL’s) Everett (Silvertips) being a defensive team, and you come here and it’s Everett times 10. But it’s a good adjustment, good to see both ideas.”
Another perk for Toporowski: His family sees him play much more often, making the drive from the Quad Cities of Iowa to Sioux Falls, or wherever the Stampede might be playing. Unlike the WHL’s current restart plan, the USHL’s allows for limited fan attendance.
“In the WHL, my family visits once or twice a season,” he said. “Now I see them every weekend.”
For Hughes, staying with a billet family, as he is in Fargo, is also a unique experience; normally, he just lives at home with his family in Post Falls.
The team in Fargo is a veteran team, Hughes said, because some players who would be playing for college teams are back with the Force this year. So, Hughes hasn’t been relied on as much as Toporowski – who said his Sioux Falls team has just five returners from last year – to be a leader.
“Coming in I think I have a lot of respect from the guys, but at the same time there’s quite a few guys who were here last year, a few who played college last year and came back to the USHL,” Hughes said. “We actually have a really old team this year, a lot of 19s and 20s, so I think everyone’s a leader.”
Despite playing through a pandemic, the USHL has had just 11 games postponed since it opened play in November. Its regular season wraps up on April 24 with playoffs to follow.
Fargo and Sioux Falls played five times already, but that was before Hughes and Toporowski had joined their rosters. They have three more games scheduled, including back-to-back games on March 5 and 6.
“Topper’s always the guy who gets under the other team’s skin,” Hughes said, “so I’m curious to see how he goes about it with me.”
Toporowski was mum about his intentions.
“I might try a bit,” Toporowski said. “We’ll see how it goes.”
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