Cycles don’t usually begin with championships.
Three years ago, the Spokane Chiefs became that rare exception in junior hockey when it did what most teams wish to accomplish at the end of a very productive cycle. The Chiefs triumphed over the hometown Kitchener Rangers in the 2008 MasterCard Memorial Cup final to win the franchise’s second Memorial Cup.
Everyone knew the Chiefs were on the verge of greatness early in the 2007-08 season, but so very few would have predicted it would come so soon. This was a team, after all, that was so young, so loaded with promise it seemed inconceivable better years could follow.
And yet, here are those same Chiefs, now nearing the end of a memorable cycle, in search of a magical bookend that could culminate the same way it started.
“Our group came together probably quicker than anybody thought,” Chiefs general manager Tim Speltz said of the 2008 team.
The Chiefs still retain three carryovers from the magical championship season in overage forwards Tyler Johnson and Levko Koper as well as defenceman and team captain, Jared Cowen.
Those players were meant to carry a future destined for greatness. No one would have predicted then they would all play such integral roles on a championship team so early in their careers.
But now, as the three look towards building another winner in Spokane, it’s clear sometimes things work out the way they’re planned.
“They know how to win,” Speltz said. “They’ve been great leaders for our team.”
Leadership is an intangible that can’t be replaced. The Chiefs possess leadership in droves after it was passed down from the captain of that championship-winning team in 2008, Chris Bruton.
The Chiefs are looking every bit like a championship contender this season. Despite starting off slowly — to the tune of a 7-8-1 record — the Chiefs are directly behind the Portland Winterhawks for first in the Western Conference standings.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the Chiefs’ surge is that this year’s team has so little of the flash and dash of previous teams. No longer is it led by superstars Drayson Bowman, Mitch Wahl or Kyle Beach.
Aside from Johnson — who’s two points back of Medicine Hat’s Linden Vey for the league lead in scoring — this team scores by committee. As far as Speltz is concerned, that’s one of the more rewarding aspects of a team featuring many players who are currently enjoying career seasons.
“We’re doing things a total different way than we’ve done in the past,” he said. “The last few years we’ve outscored teams because we have just been more skilled.”
Make no mistake, this is far from the most-skilled team on paper in the league. In fact, it’s far from the most-skilled Chiefs team in the last half decade.
Spokane saw its repeat bid fall short in double-overtime of Game 7 in the second round against the Vancouver Giants in 2009. That team was more suitable on paper to finish on top than the team that actually won.
“We thought we were as good as any team in the Western Hockey League that year,” Speltz said. “Without Cowen’s (season-ending knee) injury, maybe we would have been.”
Last season ended in frustration after a team loaded with talent failed to advance past the opening round of the playoffs for the first time in three years. The team lost in seven games to the upstart Portland Winterhawks.
Speltz can now easily identify the missing ingredient with last year’s team.
“We were a ‘sometimes’ team,” he said. “We weren’t as committed doing the things that you needed to do to be successful and it showed up.”
His team will now head into what Speltz believes is the most important part of the season in the stretch run, but will do so without starting goaltender James Reid. The overage goalie, who holds the franchise wins record with 79, is out indefinitely with an ankle injury.
If this team is destined for greatness, it will need to recapture the success it found in 2008.
“We look at 2008, how special we were that last third and the playoffs and the Memorial Cup and that’s what sets that team apart,” Speltz said.
The goal for the Chiefs this season is simply to make the playoffs. In spite of the fact the team will undoubtedly face adversity in the form of key graduations this summer, the Memorial Cup isn’t discussed.
“We haven’t tried to get ahead of ourselves one bit,” Speltz said. “I don’t think anybody is even thinking or looking that far ahead.”
The same could be said of the 2008 team.