Every sports fan and every sports reporter will likely always remember where they were and what they were doing on March 11, 2020.
I was in the hallway near the dressing rooms at Angel of the Winds Arena, conducting interviews with Silvertips coaches, players, and management to gauge their reaction that their last regular-season home game of the 2019-20 season was going to be played without fans.
It didn’t take long for the, uh, stuff to hit the fan.
The Silvertips were supposed to bus over to Kennewick for a tilt with the Tri-City Americans the next day. That never happened. Neither did the WHL playoffs, which was setting up for a fascinating three-way U.S. Division race between Everett, Portland, and Spokane.
Oh, how the times have changed since then.
The Western Hockey League’s U.S. Division will play its first game in 375 days when Portland and Tri-City drop the puck on Thursday for a season-opening tilt at the Toyota Center in Kennewick.
The five U.S. Division teams — Everett, Portland, Seattle, Spokane, and Tri-City — will play a 24-game intra-division schedule in their home barns. For now, there will just be a regular season and fans won’t be permitted in the building.
Here’s your guide to following the WHL’s U.S. Division this season.
The Everett Silvertips were cresting when the season was spiked last March, with 11 wins in their last 12 games, and figured to be one of three heavyweights within the division — along with Spokane and Portland — ready to duke it out in the playoffs.
Despite losing key overagers forward Bryce Kindopp (Ducks prospect), defenseman Wyatte Wylie (Flyers), and defenseman Jake Christiansen (Blue Jackets), and two talented overagers Kasper Puutio (Panthers) and Michal Gut, Everett still brings back a lot of talent from last season’s team and should be one of the favorites again this season.
Forward to watch — Cole Fonstad
The overage forward and former Montreal Canadiens prospect jelled really nicely with his new team last season after being acquired from Prince Albert and figures to be one of Everett’s top playmakers up front this season, along with Gage Goncalves and Jackson Berezowski.
“Cole’s a real difference maker,” Everett head coach Dennis Williams said. “You can’t teach that creativity. You’re either born with it or you take that along with you. I expect him to be a key part of our offense like he was last year with Gage (Goncalves).”
Defenseman to watch — Gianni Fairbrother
Fairbrother, who recently inked an entry-level contract with Montreal, is a physically bruising defenseman with a mean slapshot. Expect the North Vancouver native to receive an expanded offensive role in his overage season.
“This year really gives him a role to round out his game offensively,” Williams said. “He’s going to be put in some situations on the offensive side of the puck where he can grow his game, and he’s going to be great at it.”
Goalie to watch — Dustin Wolf
This name should be familiar to most of you. The Calgary Flames prospect, a former guest of the Sound Of Hockey podcast, and reigning WHL goaltender of the year could carry Everett to a division title.
Draft prospect to watch — Olen Zellweger
Rated a ‘C’ prospect by NHL Central Scouting, the 17-year-old blueliner is only listed 5-foot-10, 175 pounds but possesses impressive playmaking abilities for a defensive prospect. He’s also lauded by the Everett front office and coaching staff for his work ethic and commitment to the sport.
“He obviously put a good summer in and if you know Olen, that’s how he is — he’s really driven and committed,” Williams said. “He lives and breathes hockey more than any player I know. I haven’t seen a player like him.”
Rookie to watch — Ryan Hofer
Hofer is a little older for a WHL rookie at 18 years old, but don’t be surprised to see Hofer contribute immediately and often for the Silvertips. He’s the younger brother of former Portland goaltender and Blues prospect Joel Hofer, who is currently playing in the American Hockey League (AHL) for the Utica Comets.
Breakout candidate — Jackson Berezowski
Berezowski has always been a coaches’ favorite and his shoot-first mentality combined with his projected place on Everett’s top line should result in a big season for the Yorkton, Saskatchewan native, who is coming off a 36-point season in 2019-20.
The Winterhawks claimed the Scotty Munro trophy last season, the award given to the team with the best regular-season record in the WHL, and are primed for another successful season, even without four key players — 2021 draft-eligible forwards James Stefan and Jack O’Brien, Red Wings prospect Cross Hanas, and defenseman Clay Hanus — loaned to the USHL and top defenseman Johnny Ludvig moving on to professional hockey.
Forward to watch — Seth Jarvis
Jarvis, a Carolina first-round pick in 2020, is fresh off a sweltering stretch with 11 points in nine games, which led the AHL at that stage. Jarvis, 18, is one of the most dynamic players in the US Division.
Mike Johnston, the Winterhawks’ general manager and head coach, is excited to see how Jarvis carries that professional experience into the WHL season.
“Seth is a great leader on our team and always a very good example on and off the ice,” Johnston said. “For him, it’s a motivational experience, but it’s what he imparts on the other players on our team.”
Defenseman to watch — Jonas Brondberg
Brondberg, a native of Denmark, is a sturdy defenseman at 6-foot-4, 195-pounds and has proven to be an adept stay-at-home defenseman at the WHL level.
Goalie to watch — Brock Gould
Gould, a Colorado Springs native, was brought to Portland in an offseason trade with Moose Jaw, mostly because of complications from Gould getting over the Canadian border for the season, according to Johnston. Gould wasn’t drafted last year despite playing in the CHL Top Prospects game and is seeking a rebound season with the Winterhawks.
Draft prospect to watch — Tyson Kozak
Kozak is a two-way forward tabbed as a ‘C’ prospect by NHL Central Scouting and is coming off a 29-point season and should see an expanded role with some key forwards gone this season.
Rookie to watch — Kyle Chyzowski
The Chyzowski name runs deep in the Western Hockey League, with several cousins that have played in the league, Kyle is the next one up. The Surrey, British Columbia native was a third-round pick of the Winterhawks in 2019.
Breakout candidate — Gabe Klassen
Klassen was productive as a 16-year-old rookie with 15 points in 30 games and is set to take on a bigger role in his sophomore season.
It’s all starting to come together for Seattle.
The Thunderbirds may still be a year away from seriously competing, but several of the young pieces acquired through trades are popping up on this year’s roster. Thunderbirds fans will have a good chance to see the future, along with a trio of recently drafted players in Henrik Rybinski (Panthers), Matthew Rempe (Rangers), and Tyrel Bauer (Jets).
“It’s definitely exciting,” Seattle GM Bil La Forge said. “In this shortened season we’ll be the youngest we’ve ever been; Our average age is 17.5, which is quite low when you consider it. But it will be exciting to see these kids get the opportunity to show what they can do and get their feet wet this year so we can really get on the ground running next season.”
Forward to watch — Matthew Rempe
Rempe shot up draft boards last season with 31 points in 47 games in his first season in the WHL and the Rangers cashed in on that upward trajectory in the sixth round. The towering 6-foot-8 center comes with a hard work rate and some burgeoning skill.
Defenseman to watch — Tyrel Bauer
Bauer is a classic stay-at-home defenseman that should have the opportunity to contribute more offensively with some key players gone from the blueline.
Goalie to watch — Thomas Milic
Milic played two games for the Thunderbirds last year, but Seattle’s third-round pick in 2018 is expected to be the franchise’s goalie for its next wave of young talent.
Draft prospect to watch — Connor Roulette
Rated as an “A” prospect by NHL Central Scouting, the 17-year-old forward is already a proven WHL scorer and playmaker and should fall in the early round of the upcoming NHL Draft.
“I think for a guy like Connor, it’s exciting to see what he’s going to do next,” La Forge said. “He’s a kid with special talent and he loves hockey so much that getting to see him in this 24-game stretch will be really exciting.”
Rookie to watch — Kevin Korchinski
A first-round pick (No. 10 overall) by Seattle in 2019, Korchinski is an adept puck-moving defenseman that should play a big part right away on the T-Birds’ blueline.
Breakout candidate — Lucas Ciona
Ciona, who is draft eligible in 2021, is coming off a 13-point season in 2019-20 and could be a handful for the division during this abbreviated season. At 6-foot-2, 205-pounds, Ciona can play a rugged physical game but chip in offensively.
Similarly to Portland, Spokane loaned out key forwards Luke Toporowski and Bear Hughes (a Post Falls, Idaho native) and goaltender Lukas Parik to the USHL, and key import defenseman David Jiricek will not make the trip over for the season.
But the cupboard still isn’t bare. Eli Zummack is a dynamic overager that should form a formidable forward group with Adam Beckman (Wild) and Jack Finley (Lightning).
There are some question marks on the backend and in goal for Spokane, but expect the Chiefs to score their fair share of goals.
Forward to watch — Adam Beckman
If there’s any player that can eclipse 50 points in an abbreviated 24-game season, it’s Beckman. The Minnesota Wild third-round pick is the WHL’s reigning scoring champion with 107 points last season and should be primed for a big total in one last hurrah in the WHL.
Defenseman to watch — Bobby Russell
With Ty Smith (Devils), Noah King (AHL), and Filip Kral (Czech Extraliga) all gone, Russell should play a big role this season, especially on the power play where his offensive abilities should shine.
“I think he’ll be on that first power play unit whereas before he struggled to get any power play minutes with those other guys,” Spokane general manager Scott Carter said. “I think that’s the one area that we’ll be able to see him take advantage of his skating and playmaking abilities. He’s a guy that a lot of teams were always asking me about but we always felt that Bobby had some big upside and I think this year it’s going to show.”
Goalie to watch — Campbell Arnold
The 6-foot backstop played 22 games for the Chiefs last year, posting a 2.59 goals-against average and a .902 save percentage as a frequent understudy to Parik last year. The Nanaimo, British Columbia native is coming off a torn ACL, but is 100 percent healthy, according to Carter.
“Really before he was hurt last year, before Christmas he was pushing Parik for the starting job and showing he could be a No. 1 last year,” Carter said. “He’s looked really good at camp.”
Draft prospect to watch — Graham Sward
Rated a ‘C’ prospect by NHL Central Scouting, the 17-year-old blueliner is only listed 5-foot-10, 175 pounds but possesses impressive playmaking abilities for a defensive prospect.
“I thought Graham really stepped up last year when Matt Leduc got hurt and showed what he can do,” Carter said. “He’s put on another inch and put on some weight … so he’s got more of a pro body on him and he’s going to get some big minutes with (Noah) King, (Filip) Kral, and Ty Smith gone and our euro not coming over. He’s going to play in all situations for us and I think he can be a higher draft pick than what is being reported on some neutral websites.”
Rookie to watch — Blake Swetlikoff
Swetlikoff played in 11 games for the Chiefs last season, but the third-round pick in 2018 was sent home early because of the lack of ice time available with a deep forward group. Swetlikoff could play a bigger role in his second run at the league.
Breakout candidate — Cordel Larson
Larson is hoping to parlay a 43-point campaign in 2019-20 into an even bigger season, and the opportunity should be there with Toporowski and Hughes not in the fold.
The pandemic-shortened season was a precarious one for the Tri-City Americans, who shipped away key veterans Kyle Olsen and Beck Warm (Hurricanes prospect) in order to restock the cupboard after years of contending.
The Ams are still on the older side, with eight 19-year-olds to go with their overage group. That overage group includes Jack Barnes, the son of Seattle Kraken professional scout and Tri-City ownership partner Stu Barnes.
“We don’t have the elite 20-year-olds like the Jarvis’ or the Beckmans’, but I think we’re pretty deep up front and it will be exciting to see how competitive the division is,” Tri-City general manager Bob Tory said.
Forward to watch — Sasha Mutala
Mutala, a Colorado Avalanche prospect, is coming off a four-game stint in the AHL and should be the Ams go-to scorer this season. The Vancouver native put up 67 points in 62 games last season and is still vying for a professional contract from Colorado.
Defenseman to watch — Luke Zazula
The Americans paid a decent price to go out and acquire Zazula from Kamloops last season, sliding over a second-rounder and a third-rounder in 2021 for the diminutive defenseman, but the 5-foot-8 rear guard came through with 21 points in 37 games for Tri-City last season.
“I wish he was only 19 and not 20,” Tory said with a chuckle. “He was a big acquisition for us because not only is he a really good hockey player and really good leader, he’s a really exciting player to watch for fans, not only our fans but other teams’ fans. He’s such a dynamic skater and he’s a little guy that competes super hard, so he became a fan favorite for us.”
Goalie to watch — Talyn Boyko
Boyko, who is rated a “C” prospect by NHL Central Scouting, is listed at 6-foot-7 and is primed to take over the main duties between the pipes now that Beck Warm has moved on to professional hockey.
“This is Talyn’s third year with us, so obviously it’s time for him to take the reins and be the starter for us,” Tory said. “We just need him to be consistent for us, play good solid hockey, and eliminate the weak goals against. He’s a big kid and put on a lot of weight, starting to fill out his body and mature, and had a good offseason of training.”
Draft prospect to watch — Marc Lajoie
Lajoie, a “C”-rated prospect, carries a big frame at 6-foot-4, 231 ponds and already comes in with plenty of experience after playing a significant role with the Americans as a 16-year-old rookie.
“I think he’s worked really hard at getting stronger and improving his skating,” Tory said. “He’s a big guy, he’s got really good instincts, has a great hockey IQ, and played in a lot of key situations for us last year, probably more than he should have, but in the long run that’s going to help him. As a young player, he needs to have more of a physical presence, which I think he will with (more) confidence and I certainly think he’ll get some quality ice time.”
Rookie to watch — Rhett Melnyk
A second-round pick in 2019, Melnyk played in three games as an affiliate player last year, but the Edmonton native totaled some big points numbers at lower levels and should be a nice young depth piece for the Ams this season and moving forward.
Breakout candidate — Parker Bell
Ice time increased significantly for Bell as a rookie in 2019-20 as the season progressed and Bell could parlay that into an increased role for Tri-City this year.
Josh Horton is a freelance writer, former newspaper journalist, and former Western Hockey League writer for the Everett Herald and The Spokesman-Review (Spokane). He is NOT a juggler, nor is he a former professional baseball player. Follow him on Twitter @byjoshhorton.