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Spokane Chiefs

‘Family always comes first’: Spokane Chiefs’ Bear Hughes soaks in playing near hometown of Post Falls as season nears end

By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

Outside the Hughes house on the northern end of Post Falls, wind howls across the family’s 50 acres on a cloudy Monday afternoon.

It is no longer winter but doesn’t yet feel like spring, and so inside the house the fireplace burns, and the kitchen smells like cinnamon rolls and battered chicken fingers.

This is the house Bear Hughes grew up in and still lives in for at least a little bit longer, a luxury that few junior hockey players get to enjoy.

But the Hughes family doesn’t let sports dictate its life, a contrast borne somewhat out of necessity – there are 10 kids in the family, with Bear being No. 6 – but also out of principle.

“I think we’re pretty fortunate,” Bear Hughes said. “It’s not like hockey comes first in our family. Family always comes first.”

It is through that lens that the Spokane Chiefs’ 20-year-old captain sees his hockey career, which is nearing an inflection point.

A 2020 fifth-round draft pick of the Washington Capitals of the National Hockey League, Hughes has yet to sign a professional deal. If that doesn’t happen by June 1, the Capitals relinquish his rights and Hughes would become a free agent.

But that’s getting a bit ahead of things because Hughes is doing everything he can to extend his junior career this weekend when the Chiefs play their final two regular-season games, both on the road against the Victoria Royals.

The Chiefs sit seventh in the Western Hockey League’s Western Conference standings with 51 points. Their record is identical to the eighth-place Prince George Cougars (23-38-4-1).

Vancouver is one point ahead of them, in sixth place with 52, and Victoria sits in ninth place with 50 points. The Tri-City Americans are a distant 10th (42 points).

Win once in regulation this weekend and the Chiefs will clinch a playoff spot, something that earlier in the season was in doubt: When Adam Maglio was fired as the team’s head coach on Feb. 10, the Chiefs were in 10th place in the conference.

But under interim coach Ryan Smith, the Chiefs are 11-12-1-0, good enough to vault them back into a playoff spot.

The team has improved despite trading away Jack Finley, Luke Toporowski and Cordel Larson before the trade deadline, leaving Hughes as the undisputed leader – and officially the captain – of a young roster.

Hughes leads the team in goals (24) and assists (42), and he has the best rate of his Chiefs career with 1.06 points per game.

“I was going to stay here no matter what,” Hughes said of whether he considered asking for a trade. “Living at home, I love it. I don’t want to go anywhere else if I don’t have to. Next year I will if I want to keep playing hockey, but I just wanted to enjoy living at home this year no matter what the circumstances were.”

The feelings are mutual from his family members, including Roman, his 12-year-old brother and the youngest of the family. Brothers Roman, Vinny (14) and Dante (16) all play hockey locally; Dante attended the Chiefs’ development camp last summer.

Roman attended Bear’s first game as a Chiefs player – he remembers that Bear’s first shift came on the power play against Tri-City in March 2019 – and still regularly gets to watch him play. For him, the experience of watching the Chiefs differs from the experience of other 12-year-olds at Spokane Arena.

“It’s your brother (on the ice),” Roman said. “You actually know him.”

 (Courtesy of Larry Brunt/Spokane Chiefs)
(Courtesy of Larry Brunt/Spokane Chiefs)

Even though Vince and Michelle Hughes didn’t grow up with hockey in their lives, the sport has worked its way into the family’s fabric. Vince is the general manager of the Frontier Ice Arena in Post Falls, a venture he’s been a part of since the project began in 2000.

Michelle grew up in a baseball family in California, where her dad coached all her brothers. She admits that she didn’t know much about hockey, but that changed as her children started playing the sport, beginning with firstborn Rance, who played for the Spokane Braves of the Kootenay International League.

“I love it. I’m a hockey mom,” she said.

“I get into it – pounding on the glass, rooting for the kids, yelling at the refs, all that type of stuff.”

Six of their seven boys “pretty much live for hockey,” she said, and so the basement became the arena for many a family game. About four years ago, the family walled the space with hockey-like dasher boards after they’d put enough holes in the Sheetrock.

Rance , now 30, played one season in the North American Hockey League after his two-year stint with the Braves. Bear would be just the third Idaho-born player to play in the NHL, and the first to do so since 1958, should he reach the sport’s top league.

The most direct path would be through the Capitals, whose American Hockey League affiliate in Hershey, Pennsylvania, could call up Hughes once the Chiefs’ season finishes.

But Hughes is taking the wait-and-see approach to the next phase of his career.

“When it comes time to play, I care more than anyone else on the team, I like to think,” he said. “But at the same time, I know that hockey has its place. Obviously, I love – I love – the game. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be playing.

“We’ll see what happens with next year. Obviously, I want to sign a pro contract. And for my career, everything’s kind of happened in a good way that’s beneficial to me and my family. If Hershey offers me a contract, yeah, I’m going to sign it. But if they don’t, then I’ll take it as a sign from God, that maybe that’s not for me.”

Hughes’ career has been unique in the sense that he did not move away from home like so many junior hockey players do as young teenagers. That’s the path of the rest of the Chiefs’ players, who mostly hail from Canada and live with families in Spokane.

During the pandemic, Hughes got a taste of the billet life when the Chiefs loaned him to the Fargo (North Dakota) Force of the United States Hockey League, which allowed him to play 44 games during the 2020-21 season – twice as many as the Chiefs played.

Hughes’ path is more like that of Spokane-area natives Derek Ryan, Kailer Yamamoto and Tyler Johnson, who played all or most of their junior hockey locally.

They are all still in the NHL – Ryan and Yamamoto with the Edmonton Oilers, and Johnson in his first year with the Chicago Blackhawks.

Those are players Hughes sees regularly in the off-season, as they all spend at least some time skating at Frontier Arena. Hughes has long had an inside look at their lives.

“If you look at a guy like Derek Ryan, he’s all about the family,” Hughes said of the 35-year-old Ryan, who is married and has two children. “You can see that hockey’s not the top of his world. And I respect that a lot.

“That shows you can be great at something and keep your family first.”

Regardless of what happens in his hockey career, though, Hughes’ time living in the basement of his childhood home is likely wrapping up.

Above his bed hangs a 1-foot wooden Spokane Chiefs logo, a handmade gift from Rance when Bear was 6. Bear said he would like to bring it in to have his teammates sign it before the season ends.

As unlikely as it looked earlier this year when veterans Finley and Toporowski were still on the roster, Hughes will end his time with the Chiefs as team captain.

When he first put on the Chiefs’ sweater three years ago, becoming captain wasn’t a set goal for Hughes, nor does he feel all that differently than he did before he was named captain midseason. He’s not patting himself on the back.

But he is honored that circumstances fell the way that they did.

“It wasn’t necessarily my goal at all,” Hughes said of being captain. “It kind of just worked itself out.”