More than a year after they last took the ice, the Spokane Chiefs are poised to return on Friday when they visit the Seattle Thunderbirds.
It follows a two-week camp where the team’s 24 players and the coaching staff practiced at the Spokane Arena, a far smaller bunch than the usual training camp.
“It’s been really good,” forward Cordel Larson said. “Just getting to know all the new guys, learning (coach Adam Maglio’s) different systems, just getting ready for the upcoming season, the upcoming 24 games. It’s been a positive two weeks, for sure.”
The Chiefs are jumping right into regular-season games, with no exhibitions as in a usual season.
“We’ve learned we have a real hard-working group,” Maglio said. “The players didn’t take their foot off the gas. It was a long camp, and it was a hard camp. They’re a real resilient group.”
It is a group that returns Adam Beckman, its leading scorer a year ago, an NHL draft pick and the reigning Western Hockey League Player of the Year. Larson and center Eli Zummack also headline a core of returners that helped the team win 16 of its final 17 games in the 2019-20 season.
But the Chiefs will also be breaking in nine rookies.
“Compared to last year, it’s a younger team. We’re a younger group, a little more youth,” Maglio said. “We still have some real good pieces with some real good players who are coming up, so we like the group.”
The 19-year-old Larson, who scored 15 goals and added 28 assists last year, is in his third full season with the Chiefs and is taking on more of a leadership role.
He said he is confident the team can be comparable to last year’s squad that finished third in the U.S. Division – and in the conference overall – behind Everett and Portland.
“I think we got a lot of good, fast players up front who can move the puck well and play with speed,” Larson said. “I think we share a lot of similarities to last year’s team where we got some big names with (Beckman) and (Zummack). Obviously, we lost (Filp Kral) and (Ty Smith), but some of our young defensemen are looking good back there.
“We got a good, fast hockey club, and I think these 24 games are gonna go really well for us.”
Another challenge will be ensuring that everyone follows COVID-19 protocols. Players are tested multiple times each week, and a confirmed positive test within their team would lead to an automatic two-week shutdown.
The WHL announced Thursday a positive test within the Kelowna Rockets team. Because it was discovered during the initial return to play testing phase and prior to the club beginning team activities, other members of the team can continue to practice, according to the release.
The league’s five teams in British Columbia, including Kelowna, are scheduled to begin their season March 26. The WHL schedule doesn’t include any crossover games among its four divisions.
“They’re doing a good job with the protocols and there is a lot,” Maglio said of Chiefs players.
“But the protocols allow us to play, and that’s what they understand. If we follow the protocols, it will allow us to play our 24-game schedule.”
There are no playoffs scheduled, so the Chiefs’ season is expected to end May 9. In light of that, development takes priority over victories this season.
“We’re just looking for progress each game,” Maglio said. “We’re gonna let the score kinda take care of itself at the end, but we just really wanna see our team take steps, and we’re not just looking for team play, we’re looking for individuals to take steps each and every game, as well. I think we’re really just gonna focus on that process.”
The Chiefs’ opening weekend includes back-to-back-to-back games at Seattle, Everett and Portland, although Sunday’s game against Portland will be played in Kent, Washington, the same site as Friday’s opener.
It is scheduled to be the Winterhawks’ only home game played in Kent before they are allowed to return to play on their usual home ice at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Portland.
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