Pat Falloon was only 16 at the time, but he suspected then that the Spokane Chiefs were going through some financial hardships.
All he had to do was look at the front of the team bus.
“When your coach is driving the bus,” Falloon said, “maybe things aren’t quite in order as far as finances go.”
That was during the 1989-90 Western Hockey League season, one year before the franchise won the first of two Memorial Cups in its history.
The buildup started a year before then, though, in 1988-89, when Falloon – as a 15-year-old – played all 72 games and scored 22 goals. Ray Whitney, a year older, netted 17 goals, and the Chiefs finished with 52 points.
In the standings, they weren’t good. They won 25 of 72 games, placing a distant sixth place in a West Division that featured two teams coached by future NHL head coaches: Ken Hitchcock, who helped build the Kamloops dynasty of the 1980s, and Barry Melrose, who moved on from Seattle after just one fifth-place season with the Thunderbirds.
Falloon could tell they were headed in the right direction.
“It was a learning season,” Falloon said. “We didn’t make the playoffs, but it was good. It was maybe what kids that come from far away needed to learn. We were able to make the odd mistake, the bad pass out of your own end. You learned (from) it.”
The next season, the Chiefs brought in Bryan Maxwell to coach them, along with assistant Gary Braun.
Falloon scored 60 goals, Whitney 57. The Chiefs reached the playoffs as the fourth-place team in the West Division.
Although they lost the best-of-nine series 5-1 to the eventual champions, the Kamloops Blazers, they were confident in their course.
“We felt like now we’re going in the right direction and we’re being led by 17-year-olds,” Whitney said. “We knew we were good.”
The next season, the entire WHL saw just how good they were.
A change in leadershipThe team’s financial realities that were apparent even to players came to a head in the spring of 1990. Majority owner Vic Fitzgerald sold the team to Brett Sports that April.
“When we first bought the team, the team was losing quite a bit of money,” said Bobby Brett, the Chiefs’ managing partner. “(We were) buying a business, and it’s gotta be profitable. We were a little bit nervous.”
The Bretts already owned the Spokane Indians minor league baseball team, which they bought in 1985, and Brett saw the opportunity in cross-marketing. There was synergy between the teams, which played in opposite segments of the calendar.
The Bretts negotiated a new lease that secured for them a larger share in revenue sources. If the team did well, Brett said, then they had a chance to be profitable.
As Brett explored the inner workings of the team, he realized there were numerous problems beyond just the financial.
“It was kind of a fractured organization,” Brett said. “Nobody liked each other.”
Two months later, in June 1990, Brett hired 32-year-old Tim Speltz to be the team’s general manager. He was young but came highly recommended after two years as general manager for Medicine Hat.
Having been in the league for a few years by then, Speltz already recognized the talent on the Chiefs’ roster, which had been assembled primarily by the previous GM, Bob Strumm.
“The depth of the Spokane Chiefs at that time before I got there, there was no question the team was knocking on the door,” said Speltz, who is head of amateur scouting for the Toronto Maple Leafs. “I don’t know if anybody thought it was a championship team, but they sure thought it was a team destined to be a contending team.”
Amid all the turnover, there was a constant in the coaching staff, with Maxwell and Braun both under contract for another season. And that was just as well, because to Speltz, Maxwell was a familiar face: In 1987, when Speltz was a scout for Medicine Hat, Maxwell led the Tigers to a Memorial Cup title, the first of their two in a row.
‘We had a strut about us’To players, with all the changeover in the front office, the continuity behind the bench was important.
“He was definitely a players’ coach,” enforcer Kerry Toporowski said of Maxwell. “There was a time to have fun and definitely a time to come to work and win. It was a good balance between the work and the play with him.”
By the time the season came around that fall, Toporowski, who remembered times during the previous season when the team was short on hockey sticks, said the difference under new ownership “was like night and day.”
The roster was talented and young, yet experienced. It returned seven of its top-10 scorers from the 1989-90 season, and it featured five players who would be taken in the 1991 NHL draft.
Its biggest subtraction was the midseason trade of Travis Green, an NHL second-round draft pick in 1989 for whom Speltz traded as GM of Medicine Hat early in 1990.
But in return the Chiefs received winger Mark Woolf, who finished the 1990-91 season third on the team with 41 goals and 90 points.
“We had some good offensive players, and that was the way the team was sort of branded,” Speltz said. “We were gonna have to win ‘run and gun.’ ”
They certainly did that, scoring a league-high 435 goals that season, including a league-record 31 short-handed goals. Whitney scored 67 goals and led the WHL in scoring with 185 points. Falloon wasn’t far behind, with 64 goals and 138 points, the fourth most in the league.
“We knew we had a strut about us, especially Patty and I,” Whitney said. “We knew every night that if we were on, we were gonna have a good night.”
They played fearlessly, Whitney said, because no one wanted to mess with guys like Toporowski, who gave them “free rein out there.”
Toporowski led the league that year with 505 penalty minutes and engaged in nearly 60 fights. By then the Chiefs’ toughness was – and still is – well recognized. In league history, three of the top-five, single-season penalty totals belong to Chiefs teams from that era, including 3,635 on the Memorial Cup team.
“We were gifted offensively, but man, we were tough,” Whitney said. “We were the toughest team in the league. In those days you could win by intimidation, and we did.”
Playing then in the Spokane Coliseum, known as the Boone Street Barn, attendance didn’t match the hype at first. Brett said they only had about 3,500 on opening night in an arena that held closer to 6,000.
“The Coliseum was old and tired. We were only attracting a certain type of fan in town, not the young families,” Brett said. “It took a while to get that going.”
But as the season went on and wins piled up, the crowds grew. By January and February, the weekend games were packed, Brett said.
“It was folksy, it was fun,” Brett said, “and the boys, we scored a lotta goals.”
After five mostly underwhelming WHL seasons, the Spokane Chiefs – and hockey – were pushing toward the playoffs with a roster poised to contend for a championship.
But first, they had to get past the Kamloops Blazers, three-time league champion and the giant of the West Division.
“They were very good,” Whitney said. “They were a problem for us.”
Coming next week: Standout wing Pat Falloon was always a farmer first.
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