The bad blood between the Tri-City Americans and Spokane Chiefs started long before any of the players on either team this season were born.
It was Oct. 1, Opening Day of the 1988-89 season.
The Tri-City Americans had just relocated from New Westminster, British Columbia, and they still wore the trademark yellow and black of their previous team, the Bruins.
Before the season opener — at Spokane — then-Americans beat writer Eric Degerman reported: “Promotion people for the Chiefs and TV sportscasters began to exhort their fans earlier this week by asking them to wear red, white and blue — the colors real Americans wear.”
Nothing has changed in 25 years, except the Americans have worn red, white and blue for 21 years.
“It will never change,” Spokane coach Don Nachbaur said of the intense rivalry between the teams. “It’s two competitive teams and franchises, and I don’t think there is anybody without pride playing the game, and that goes for both sides.”
Nachbaur should know. He coached the Americans for six seasons before leaving to coach the Binghamton Senators of the American Hockey League.
Nachbaur lasted one season in New York before returning to the Northwest. The Chiefs, who had just parted ways with coach Hardy Sauter, were quick to offer Nachbaur a five-year contract. Nachbaur is in his third year with the Chiefs.
“For the first time in my life, coming into this building, it’s the first time I’ve felt welcomed,” Nachbaur joked to Spokane reporters after his introduction, referring to his time as head coach of the Americans. “We’ve had some tremendous wars.”
Now that he has spent time on both fronts, Nachbaur has a unique perspective on the rivalry.
“There are no differences,” He said. “Just different colors, different sides, but the attitudes are the same on both sides. Both teams want to win, and that’s why they are good franchises.”
The teams are in the middle of a heated first-round playoff series, and Spokane has a 3-1 advantage entering tonight’s Game 5 at the Toyota Center. Two of the four games have gone to overtime.
It is the seventh playoff series between the teams dating to 1995. The Chiefs have won four of them, including the 2008 classic in which five of the seven games went into overtime (three to double overtime) and Spokane won Game 7, 4-1.
“I think our most memorable series was the seven-game one (2008) with all the overtime games,” said Nachbaur, who was coaching Tri-City at the time. “One team won the Memorial Cup, and you always look back and say you could have been part of that. It’s a fragile sport. If you make a mistake, and the other team exploits it, you have regrets. I think both teams can look back at games they lost and say that we made a couple of mistakes we’d like to have back. That’s sports.”
The Americans won a seven-game series against Spokane in the second round last year, with three games going into overtime.
“I think the one thing is the emotion in the series really levels the teams,” Tri-City coach Jim Hiller said. “The teams know each other so well. Think about (Justin) Feser and (Brenden) Kichton and how many games they have played against each other over the last five years. There is so much of that. Some of these players know each other as well as their teammates because they have played so much. Makes for an interesting series because of that.”
Kichton, the Chiefs’ captain, loves the rivalry between the teams.
“It’s the best rivalry I have known in the WHL,” said Kichton, an overage defenseman who has played his entire career with Spokane. “Guys want to win so bad, and the fans want to win. It’s a fun, fun rivalry. Every game against Tri is a hard-fought game.”
Feser, the Americans’ captain, agrees.
“It’s always something to look forward to,” said Feser, who has spent his five-year career with the Americans. “Almost every year since I’ve been here, we’ve met in the playoffs. It’s one of those rivalries that will never get old. After this series with Spokane, the rivalry will be over for good for me. I will have memories — and you always want to make them good ones.”
After 25 years of 12 regular-season games and playoffs, the rivalry never has gotten stale, and the teams have been pretty even over the years, with the Chiefs holding a 150-129-3-5 record with 13 ties during the regular season.
“The torch is always passed on,” Nachbaur said. “There’s always guys in that room who remember and pass that message on to the next guy.”Tri-City and Spokane isn’t the WHL’s only intense rivalry.
Nachbaur coached the Seattle Thunderbirds for six years before being fired Feb. 10, 2000.
“When I was in Seattle, it was all about Portland,” he said. “You don’t look at what’s going on elsewhere — you know about it — but you don’t know a lot about it until you are in it. Our battles in Seattle with Portland were the same. They were tough.”
Spokane general manager Tim Speltz said everything about the Chiefs-Americans rivalry makes sense.
“This rivalry is incredible,” Speltz said. “No one fought harder for the Americans than we did when they were trying to move the team to Chilliwack (British Columbia). They are a great traveling partner. It helps when you play six times, and it’s easy travel for us and our fans. Both teams have a fantastic fan base, and that helps attendance.
“The younger guys learn so much with the intensity of the games,” he added. “We play each other on special nights, and both buildings are tough for the opposition to play in.”
Over the years, Nachbaur has watched several of his former players go on to have good careers in the NHL, the AHL and in Europe.
“I see lots of kids playing in the NHL right now, and you feel like you’ve had a part in it,” he said. “There’s pride in that. It’s all part of being a coach and a teacher, passing along the knowledge. It’s tough to teach how to be a winner. That has to come from within. You can tell them how to do it, but it’s hard. You know they’ve learned it when it clicks in and they play the right way.”
Feser has faced several players — some from Spokane — who have moved on to the next level.
“It’s fun to look back,” Feser said. “Playing against (Tyler) Spurgeon (Kelowna) and (Jared) Cowen, (Darren) Kramer and (Tyler) Johnson (all of Spokane), and a lot of other guys. Just maybe, I can say I beat those guys to score a goal one time.”