When the Spokane Chiefs and Kamloops Blazers worked out a midseason trade in January, Luke Toporowski got just what he’d hoped for: a better chance to win a Western Hockey League championship.
The 20-year-old forward, who had played 224 games with the Chiefs and whose father Kerry won a Memorial Cup with the Chiefs in 1991, was dealt to the Blazers, the eventual British Columbia Division champion and now the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference playoffs, which open this week.
But the deal also ended up working out rather well for the Chiefs. It just so happens, for the first time since the year Toporowski was born – 2001 – Spokane and Kamloops will meet in the WHL playoffs, starting Friday night in Kamloops.
“I have brothers there for life,” said Nick McCarry, the player whom the Chiefs received in the deal for Toporowski. “But it’s the playoffs now. There are no friends on the ice.”
Since his arrival with the Chiefs, McCarry has 16 goals and 19 assists in 36 games. The 20-year-old’s seven power-play goals – all during his time in Spokane – are tied with Bear Hughes for the team lead.
Whereas McCarry was playing third- or fourth-line minutes with the Blazers, the Chiefs are counting on him to play top-line minutes and to play on both the power play and penalty kill.
“I’m just getting better and more confident every day,” McCarry said.
In Kamloops, Toporowski has 34 points in 22 games, compared to 29 points in 27 games with Spokane. Out since March 11 with an injury, Toporowski – who has scored 96 regular-season goals and another eight in the playoffs during his WHL career – is expected to play in Game 1 on Friday, Blazers coach Shaun Clouston said.
“He’s a guy that carries himself really well, and I think that helped our group,” Clouston said Wednesday. “Obviously, his abilities on the ice speak for themselves. We knew he was a top guy, a top-end goal scorer. We’re excited to have him back. He’s healthy and ready to roll.”
While Kamloops won its division with 99 points and a 48-17-3-0 record, Clouston said the team is still relatively young. Bringing in an experienced scorer – and a player with 21 playoff appearances – was important, he said.
Toporowski said it has been a great experience.
“When all of us were in Spokane before any of us got traded, it wasn’t looking the best,” Toporowski said, referring to the trades of Campbell Arnold, Jack Finley and Cordel Larson. “My thought process was, as a 20-year-old, it’s my last year. I want to win. I want a (professional) contract, and you have to be on a winning team to get a contract.
“And I want to win a championship.”
There is a touch of coincidence, then, that the road to a championship goes through Spokane, a team that is playing better hockey than it was when Toporowski left.
McCarry said when he was traded to the Chiefs – along with a second-round 2025 WHL prospects draft pick – his attitude was that it was his job to lead the team to a playoff appearance. He also is intentional about being a role model for the young players on the team because McCarry, who has played 174 WHL games for three teams, “knows the grind” it is to learn how to play in the league.
Chiefs interim head coach Ryan Smith has known McCarry for most of McCarry’s WHL career. Smith coached him for two seasons in Medicine Hat – during the first of which, 2018-19, Smith also shared a bench with Clouston, who was then Medicine Hat’s head coach – and when the trade came along and McCarry’s name came up as a possible target, “it was a no-brainer,” Smith said.
“I’ve always liked Nick as a person, always liked his energy,” Smith said. “He’s had a little bit of desperation to his game. I think that creeps in when you’re 20 years old. You don’t want your career to be over.”
Even though McCarry was traded from a team at the top of the league standings to one at the bottom, Smith said the forward has been “outstanding.”
“He came in and said, ‘I want to help this team get to the playoffs and win a championship,’ ” Smith said, “and that’s what he’s done.”
Toporowski, whose uncle and brother also played for the Chiefs, expects to have plenty of family on hand for Game 4, the first in the best-of-seven series to be played in Spokane. The pandemic wiped out his chance to win a league title the past two years with the franchise he knew so well, but he’s happy to have the chance to chase a title one last time.
Any trip back to Spokane will always be a homecoming for him.
“I’m just super excited I get to go back. I’m sure it’ll be cool,” Toporowski said. “The fans are awesome, and Spokane’s always going to be home.”
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