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Spokane Chiefs

‘Tough decision’: Spokane Chiefs part ways with coach Ryan Smith after two full seasons

Ryan Smith speaks during his 2022 introductory news conference as Spokane Chiefs coach at the Arena. The team fired Smith on Wednesday.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

The Spokane Chiefs made great strides on the ice during the 2023-24 season, increasing their win total by 15 and points total by 26 over the previous season, and claiming the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Hockey League’s Western Conference – before being swept in four games by first-place Prince George.

The Chiefs scored more than 70 more goals and allowed 30 fewer than last season as well. Despite all of that improvement on the ice and on paper, the team announced on Wednesday it had “parted ways” with head coach Ryan Smith and assistant coach Dustin Donaghy.

Smith spent two full seasons as the Chiefs’ full-time coach after taking over as interim coach in February of the 2021-22 season.

Current associate head coach Stefan Legein will return for the 2024-25 season.

“It was a tough decision,” Chiefs general manager Matt Bardsley said. “It was really hard. I’d thought about it for a little bit. It wasn’t something that there was a decision made overnight. I kind of evaluated our season and took a little of time after the season to think about some things.

“I think Ryan’s done a good job with laying the foundation and he was a big part of our culture. I just felt like where our team was and where we need to get to, I just felt like we needed to go in a little bit of a different direction. It wasn’t really one big thing that led up to it.”

At the conclusion of the Chiefs’ playoff series loss, in which they were outscored 20-9 in the sweep, Smith served as an assistant coach with Team Canada at the 2024 IIHF U18 World Championship from April 25 to May 5 in Espoo and Vantaa, Finland. Canada beat the United States 6-4 in the gold medal game.

Smith previously won a silver medal as an assistant coach with Canada Red at the 2022 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, and won silver and bronze as an assistant with Canada West at the 2012 and 2013 World Junior A Hockey Challenges.

Bardsley said Smith’s commitment to the international tournament and the recent WHL drafts impacted the timing of the announcement of the changes.

“I thought about some things, but knowing that he was going to the under-18s I wasn’t going to say anything before (the tournament), and it even allowed me a little bit more time to think about some stuff.”

Bardsley said he’ll “take some time” to sort through candidates, and that resumes hit his desk almost immediately after the announcement was made.

“There’s not a timeline on it. It certainly has to be the right fit,” he said. “A lot of the qualities that Ryan had I certainly liked and enjoyed, and I consider him a friend. But at the same time, I want to see who’s out there and who’s available and get through that.”

The WHL is known as a “developmental league,” and Bardsley will take that into serious consideration during the recruiting process.

“It’s that fine balance of winning against development,” he said. “I think if we’re developing in the proper way, it’s gonna help with wins. And I think when you’re winning, it leads to development.”

One of the biggest things Bardsley is looking for in the new bench boss is an open line of communication – with management, players and assistant coaches.

“We need a real good communicator. Obviously, a good coach when to comes to the game. Tactics of coaching. The ability on the development side. There’s a lot of factors that’ll go into it.”

Bardsley will direct the process and be hands on in the evaluation of candidates – and keep ownership in the loop.

“Our ownership group and president, they definitely trust in me with what I’m doing and where I want to go. But I’ll make sure to keep the communication line open, of what I’m looking at and what direction I want to go. I think it’s important that they’re included in the dialog and in my thoughts.”

Though he was resolute in the decision and the process, Bardsley couldn’t help but be affected by the personal aspect of the decision.

“The toughest part with this is you make hockey decisions and that can affect people, the human side of it,” he said. “It’s sometimes the hardest part. We spend so much time as a staff together that it’s really hard once you build relationships and with someone like Ryan, in particular. And including Dustin as well.

“They’re really good people. Those are hard decisions because of the relationships.”