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Sports >  Spokane Chiefs

‘It can be hard to adjust’: COVID-19 forces Spokane Chiefs rookies to contend with a new level of homesickness

UPDATED: Thu., Oct. 28, 2021

By Angela Schneider The Spokesman-Review

It’s easy to look out onto the ice and see young men deftly moving the puck from tape to tape and dazzling the fans with their skills.

Many of them, however, are just 16 and 17 years old, away from family and friends for the first time.

And when they play for the Spokane Chiefs, or any of the U.S.-based Western Hockey League teams, they’ve moved to a different country.

One with a border that’s been closed to those family and friends, thanks to the global COVID-19 pandemic.

“Yeah, it sucks,” said Chiefs rookie Michael Cicek, a 17-year-old from Winnipeg, Manitoba. “I miss my family and friends, but I know I will get to see them soon and for the Christmas break. And I know they’re watching online.”

Two years ago, just months before the pandemic struck, the Canadian Hockey League launched a mobile app with live game broadcasts, news and video highlights for the 60 teams in the CHL’s three member leagues – Western, Ontario and Quebec.

It has given families a chance to watch their sons play their first major junior hockey games.

In slightly over a week, though, Customs and Border Protection is loosening restrictions on land-border crossings and Spokane may be facing a deluge of Canadian visitors from British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

“Oh yeah, the whole family is coming,” said Kooper Gizowski, a 16-year-old winger from Edmonton, Alberta.

Coach Adam Maglio has watched as his young players have lived through the pandemic and not having their families visit.

“The boys would Facetime or Zoom, but it was still a challenge,” Maglio said. “We have to be grateful we’re here and able to play the game we love, but we have to stress the importance of staying connected.”

The team has a responsibility to keep the players’ morale high. Maglio said he stays connected with his network throughout the league to ask what other teams are doing to help their players.

Part of it is having good billet families and another is leaning on the leadership of the older players, like Bear Hughes.

“It’s their first time away from home and for a lot of them, it’s a different country,” said Hughes, a 20-year-old from Post Falls. “They’re here to play hockey, but it can be hard to adjust. The guys can get really homesick, especially the 16-year-olds. We have to keep them comfortable. …

“But the border is opening up soon. They’ll be OK.”

A step behind

Homesickness is one problem area with which the rookies have to contend.

Missing out on training is on a whole other level. Maglio and Chiefs general manager Scott Carter see that everyone is a step or two behind in development.

Rinks and gyms were closed all over Western Canada, and players were forced to find different ways to train. The rules differed from province to province, from state to state and from country to country.

“Yeah, we definitely have some players that are probably a year behind where they normally would be,” Carter said. “Last season, we only played 21 games. Even the guys that played the shortened season are better than the kids who only played five or so in Canada. And the players drafted a couple of years ago weren’t even able to come to camp last year.”

The players from Europe – Yannick Proske of Germany and Timafey Kovgoreniya of Belarus – are right where they need to be, since most of Europe stayed open in the face of the pandemic.

The younger players, though, lack the game sense that can only be gained by playing the game. They can practice their individual skills, but shooting a puck at the garage can get them only so far.

“There is a mental component, too,” Maglio said. “The guys weren’t getting to play the sport they love, they were missing the camaraderie of the team and the game competition. You can get in some skill training, yes, but the missed competition is the big piece.”

Cicek, whose province was completely locked down for extended periods, said the experience was tough. The times when he would usually be training, he was sitting at home.

“I’d go running, but the gyms were closed,” he said. “The rink I usually skate at opened up earlier than some of the others, so I was fortunate to get on the ice earlier than most.”

Alberta had some looser rules than other provinces, but that didn’t leave Gizowski any less frustrated. It was challenging to be stuck at home.

“I focused on making sure I could get my homework done,” he said. “I talked to the coach, the general manager on what I had to do and they let me know how challenging it is as a young player and the things I had to do. I 100% felt ready for the season. By the time I got here, I was at the best I ever felt.”

Cicek and Gizowski are fitting into the lineup nicely. Cicek leads rookies in scoring with one goal and three assists, while Gizowski has chipped in one assist in five games.

“I would have liked to train more, but I don’t think I’m too far behind anyone else,” Cicek said. “I want to do whatever the team needs me to do. I hope to develop my skills and grow as a player.”

It takes time

It is simply going to take some time for everyone to catch up and put the pandemic behind them.

Carter notes it isn’t just rookies facing struggles with their hockey careers, it’s also the older players who have been drafted or are draft eligible.

“Instead of making it to the NHL at 21,” he said, “you might be looking at 22.”

Hughes, who is second in team scoring with four goals and five assists, didn’t get to go to his first NHL development camp in 2020 after getting selected by the Washington Capitals in the fifth round (148th overall).

He could only stay in touch with coaches and management via Zoom calls.

“They can’t watch you play so it’s hard for them to see where you are,” Hughes said, noting he attended Capitols training camp in August. “Moving forward, it will get easier.”

His Chiefs coach agrees.

Maglio is grateful for each step the hockey world takes toward a sense of normalcy.

“We get to have fans in the building, a full schedule and travel outside our division,” he said. “The families will get to see games live and get quality time with their sons. The families are so important and when the border does open, it will be even better.”

He sympathizes with the players who had a “lost” year because of the adjustment they encounter coming into the WHL.

“Arguably, it’s the best junior league in the world,” he said. “It can be a bit of a shock when you’re no longer in the two- to three-year age groups and you’re a 16-year-old playing with and against guys who are four years older. There are a lot of learning moments.”

But, Maglio points out, the rookies get to be around NHL-drafted or -signed players, like Hughes and Jack Finley, who signed a three-year, entry-level contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning last December .

“They get to see the older group and what it takes to reach the next stage, pro hockey,” said Maglio, who believes the Chiefs are better than their 3-4-1 record. “I see the development within the team and it’s still early in the year. We are tracking in the right direction.”

Hughes goes back to the “needs time” strategy and sees the team chemistry coming together.

“It’s hard for the rookies, coming from midget teams where they’re the leading scorer, but if they buy into their roles and do the things they need to do to make us successful as a team, they’ll be OK,” he said.

With three of the Chiefs’ top eight forwards nursing injuries, those rookies are going to be called on for big things in a big hurry. Reed Jacobson is out indefinitely with a broken leg, while Hughes left the Chiefs’ 7-3 road win over the Tri-City Americans last Saturday, following a hit into the boards. Proske sustained a concussion against the Seattle Thunderbirds, a 5-3 loss on Oct. 19

.

“You have to trust the process,” Maglio said. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint. For some players, it can come quicker, but you just have to stay positive and trust the process.”

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