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Spokane Chiefs players use time off to heal, prepare for uncertain WHL future

UPDATED: Fri., March 20, 2020

Ty Smith  of the Spokane Chiefs skates down the ice during the last minutes of a Western Hockey League game against the Everett Silvertips at the Spokane Arena on Oct. 6, 2019. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)
Ty Smith of the Spokane Chiefs skates down the ice during the last minutes of a Western Hockey League game against the Everett Silvertips at the Spokane Arena on Oct. 6, 2019. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

As much as Ty Smith would much rather still be playing hockey with his Spokane teammates, the cancellation of the Western Hockey League regular season has given the Chiefs’ captain something he hasn’t had in a long time: a break.

“I’m able to train if that’s what I want to do,” Smith said from his home in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. “But it’s been a pretty long season for me.”

It’s a season the Chiefs hope to continue at some point. In a release Wednesday, WHL officials announced they will make every effort possible to complete the playoffs, which originally were to start next week. For now, Chiefs players and coaches are staying at their homes, most of them in Canada, waiting like the rest of the world to see what happens with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s definitely weird,” said forward Bear Hughes, who lives in Post Falls. “So much free time.”

This time last year, the Chiefs set out on a three-round playoff run.

Smith followed those 2019 playoffs – during which he broke his wrist – with a shortened offseason before NHL development camp, then NHL orientation, the NHLPA showcase, rookie camp with the New Jersey Devils, main camp with the Devils and the WHL regular season in the fall.

That was interrupted by the World Junior Championships in December and January, and finally the Chiefs’ hot finish to this regular season, when they won 16 of their past 17 games, culminating in a 3-0 home victory over Kamloops on March 10.

Smith will he will get back to training, but not yet.

“Letting my body heal is my priority right now,” Smith said. “Spending time with family (too). I’m not home too much, so it’s good to see them.”

So far, that has meant playing video games with his brother – teammate Eli Zummack joined in remotely Wednesday night, Smith said – and hunkering down like all Canadians have been asked to do.

Hughes said the team gathered Saturday night before disbanding indefinitely. Smith drove the 13 hours from Spokane to Saskatoon; since then, the U.S. and Canadian governments announced they would close their border to nonessential travel.

Hughes’ drive was shorter – about 30 minutes – but the situation is similar. He is spending time with his parents and five siblings who live at home. Another brother lives at his own house in Post Falls, while one sister is stuck in France, he said.

“I’m used to it,” said Hughes, whose high school, Immaculate Conception Academy, has shifted its classes online. “I enjoy spending time with my family, so it’s not like it’s a punishment for me.”

Chiefs scouts, though, are just as busy as they would be normally. That’s because on Wednesday the WHL will hold its first U.S. prospects draft, a two-round event that allows each team to select up to two 2005-born players from the United States.

In preparation for the new draft, the WHL hosted the U.S. Challenge Cup from Feb. 21 to 23 as a showcase for bantam players. That competition was held as scheduled.

“Our focus is all on that,” Chiefs general manager Scott Carter said of the U.S. draft. “Watching video, making sure our list is where we want it. A lot of that work is still what you would normally do, other than being able to see games live.”

Those who aren’t drafted remain eligible for the WHL bantam draft on May 7, along with players from the four western Canadian provinces.

Carter’s decisions about how the Chiefs will proceed are largely dictated by the larger Canadian Hockey League, of which the WHL is a part, and the WHL itself, which he said has been sending out daily updates. For now, the team’s offices at Spokane Arena are closed. Players are staying home until further notice.

“A lot of maybes and what-if’s,” Carter said. “You can’t plan on maybes and what-ifs.”

As the league waits to make decisions about how to proceed, Hughes, Smith and the rest of the Chiefs are waiting it out, just like the rest of the world.

“It’s obviously a little disappointing, but you just have to try to stay positive,” Smith said. “At the end of the day, hockey’s a game. It’s a game that I love, but it’s just a game. … It comes down to the rest of the world and everyone’s safety and health. People’s health is more important.”

Beckman earns Bob Clarke Trophy

Chiefs forward Adam Beckman has earned the Bob Clarke Trophy, given to the WHL’s top regular-season scorer, the league announced Friday.

Beckman finished the season, which was shortened due to coronavirus concerns, with 48 goals and 59 assists for 107 points in 63 games.

He was the only WHL skater to reach the 100-point mark this season.

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