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Staying sharp: Spokane Chiefs players finding ways to get on the rink during league shutdowns

By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

Michael King did something on Oct. 30 that he hadn’t done since March 6: He scored a goal.

Then, within the next 5 minutes and 16 seconds, he scored two more goals.

Not a bad season debut for the 20-year-old, though admittedly his natural hat trick, scored for the Steinbach Pistons of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League, came against Junior A competition.

“It felt good,” said the Chiefs forward, who estimated his last hat trick came when he was 14 or 15. “It was a nice confidence booster.”

King is one of several Chiefs players who is on loan to teams from other junior leagues across Canada, after the Western Hockey League announced the policy on Oct. 23. But even those who aren’t playing games are doing whatever they can to remain sharp in preparation for the WHL’s planned restart on Jan. 8.

“For some of our players, it’s a great opportunity to get playing in games, something they’re not able to (do) with us right now, and get around some pretty good hockey,” Chiefs coach Adam Maglio said.

But the physical side perhaps isn’t as important as the mental and team aspects, Maglio said.

“Mentally, that might be the key to all of this,” he said. “To get back to the day-to-day routine of a season that we’re not having.”

For King specifically, playing for Steinbach – about an hour’s drive southeast of his hometown, Winnipeg – is an opportunity to play with a top line, be a leader and to work on other aspects of his game like the power play, which he hasn’t played much of in 129 career games with the Chiefs.

Plus, as a 20-year-old who will be fighting for one of the three overage spots on the Chiefs this season, any opportunity to play is helpful, he said.

“I definitely wanted to get a few games in,” said King, who has 26 goals in 251 career WHL games. “It’s my last season. I want to be ready to go.”

Yet King’s season in the MJHL is on hold. With COVID-19 cases spiking in Winnipeg, many of the league’s teams have been forced to postpone games. Steinbach’s next game is scheduled for Nov. 20.

One of those postponed games was against the Winkler Flyers, where another Chiefs player, Jordan Chudley, is playing on loan. The 19-year-old Chudley, who played 41 games last year as a Chiefs defenseman, has played two games for the Flyers and is scheduled to play again Wednesday.

Other Chiefs on loan include prospects Grady Lane (Virden, MJHL) and Logan Cunningham (Osoyoos in the Kootenay International Junior League).

Jack Finley, the 57th overall selection in the NHL draft in October, has also taken the opportunity to play: In two games for his hometown West Kelowna Warriors of the British Columbia Hockey League, the Chiefs center has a power-play goal and an assist.

Some U.S.-born Chiefs players are finding other competitive opportunities.

Bear Hughes, a fifth-round NHL selection last month, hasn’t played in official games, but he has suited up for Wenatchee Wild scrimmages. The Wild are the only BCHL team based in the United States. In an effort to stay sharp, they have held four scrimmages at Frontier Ice Arena in Coeur d’Alene.

They have two more scrimmages scheduled at Frontier, on Friday and Saturday. Eight WHL players have participated, including Hughes and Chiefs teammate Erik Atchison.

Others play in, prepare for, international contests

Chiefs Lukas Parik and David Jiricek, both from the Czech Republic, face unclear paths back to the WHL this year, as do all of the league’s European players.

But from Nov. 5 to Sunday, they participated in the four-team Karjala Cup in Helsinki, Finland. Each played in one of their team’s three games as the Czechs finished second behind Russia.

The 19-year-old goalie Parik played in 32 games for the Chiefs last season and was a third-round NHL draft pick in 2019. The Chiefs selected Jiricek in the 2020 import draft and has yet to play for the Chiefs.

Parik is on the World Juniors training camp roster for the Czech Republic. The camp began Wednesday and runs through Tuesday.

The Chiefs will have another player vying for a roster spot at World Juniors: reigning WHL Player of the Year Adam Beckman, who has been biding his time at home in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. The Chiefs’ leading goal scorer was invited to the Team Canada World Juniors Selection Camp, which begins Monday in Red Deer, Alberta.

“There are more players than usual going, and the circumstances of not playing games in a while, it’s gonna be difficult,” Beckman said. “But it’s exciting. The opportunity is something I’m really thankful for.”

Beckman is one of 26 forwards – and 46 players overall – invited to the camp, after which the roster will be trimmed to 22 skaters and three goalies for the World Junior Championships. Those are scheduled to be held from Dec. 26 to Jan. 5 in a bubble setting in Edmonton, Alberta, which was one of two sites for the NHL playoffs this summer.

Last year, Chiefs defenseman Ty Smith helped Team Canada win gold at the event.

“The World Juniors is a goal for any kid growing up,” the 19-year-old Beckman said. “The idea of putting on that jersey is something that’s just exciting to think I might have a chance to do.”

Maglio said he’s excited for Beckman.

“It’s gonna be great for him to be around a camp of that intensity,” Maglio said, “getting back into a real competitive environment, and where you ultimately have to make a hockey team again.”

Regardless of whether he makes Team Canada’s final roster, Beckman should be playing hockey again by late December, when the Chiefs expect to begin an abbreviated training camp, more than nine months after they last played a game together.

“Obviously, we’re all pulling for him to make that team, and then playing in international competition,” Maglio said. “I certainly think he’s gonna be ahead of the game when our season does start.”

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