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Sports >  Spokane Chiefs

Chiefs scheduled to face every WHL team for first time since 2019-20

Oct. 4, 2022 Updated Tue., Oct. 4, 2022 at 8:17 p.m.

Spokane center Blake Swetlikoff skates against Kamloops Saturday at the Arena.  (Courtesy of Spokane Chiefs)
Spokane center Blake Swetlikoff skates against Kamloops Saturday at the Arena. (Courtesy of Spokane Chiefs)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

The last couple of Western Hockey League seasons brought new meaning to the term “imbalanced schedule.”

During a shortened 2020-21 season, teams were confined to playing within their divisions.

During a full-length but geographically constricted 2021-22 campaign, teams played only the others in their conference, which in Spokane’s case was just nine other teams.

So on Friday, when the Spokane Chiefs host the Edmonton Oil Kings for the first time since 2018, the fresh jerseys are going to be a welcome sight to team captain Raegan Wiles.

“For the past two years it seemed like a different league, that Eastern (Conference),” the 20-year-old defenseman Wiles said after Saturday’s 4-2 loss to Kamloops. “So I think it’s exciting for guys. New faces, new games, because we were playing either Everett and Seattle (on what seemed like) every second night.”

The Chiefs, who won their first two games at Victoria (of the British Columbia Division) on opening weekend before losing in their home opener Saturday, are scheduled to play every team in the WHL for the first time since the 2019-20 season.

Even in that season and those previous, not every team played in every venue every year. Rather, Western Conference teams like Spokane took one long road trip to play each team in one of the Eastern Conference’s two divisions, and then it hosted contests against the other division’s teams that same season.

This year is a return to that format, and this five-game homestand features games against Edmonton (on Friday) and Medicine Hat (on Oct. 14). Calgary, Lethbridge, Swift Current and Red Deer will play in Spokane later this season.

In December, the Chiefs will make their trip to play the six East Division teams, at Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Regina, Moose Jaw, Brandon and Prince Albert.

That’s all a stark contrast to the past two years, when Spokane played its U.S. Division rivals as many as 13 times a season.

This year’s schedule also doesn’t have any particularly long stretches at home or away, other than the team’s Eastern Conference trip. The Chiefs’ current five-game homestand is their longest of the season, which gives them a prolonged opportunity to do something they don’t always get to do: practice.

“It’s always nice to not have to travel, get to sleep in your own bed. Those are important things,” Chiefs coach Ryan Smith said Saturday. “… and just some practice time. We’ve still got lots of work to do.”

One season after reaching the playoffs as a No. 7 seed (and getting swept in four games by Kamloops), Spokane’s roster is relatively balanced in terms of age, with the maximum three 20-year-olds, six 19-year-olds, six 18s, four 17s and four 16s.

The Chiefs haven’t returned much in the way of goal scorers from last season’s team, aside from 19-year-old Chase Bertholet (who had 24) and a handful of guys who scored 10 or 11 times last year in Blake Swetlikoff, Graham Sward, Ty Cheveldayoff and Carter Streek.

But through three games this season, 11 Chiefs players have scored, led by 20-year-old defenseman Mac Gross, who has three goals. Kooper Gizowski, the team’s second-round bantam pick in 2020, already has a team-high five assists and six points. Next is 18-year-old Tommy De Luca, the team’s lone import player , with four points.

They also have promising centerman Berkly Catton, the first-overall pick in the 2021 bantam draft, playing top-line center between Cheveldayoff and Bertholet. Catton has a goal and an assist and is one of the team’s four 16-year-olds, whom the Chiefs are relying on to be part of a turnaround over the next couple of seasons.

But it is rare that a 16-year-old thrives immediately in the WHL, so coaches are doing what they can, especially at home when the Chiefs get the last line change after a whistle, to put their younger players in positions to succeed.

“It’s a tough league for anybody, but for those guys it’s a long road, and they’ve just got to learn, use practice time, use the gym, and just get stronger and faster,” Smith said. “But they’re here for a reason. We picked them because they can play in this league and they’ve established that.

“So, it’ll be a growing process with all four of them, and it’ll bode well for the future.”

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