- Gary Peterson
Mitch Holmberg loves Spokane, but he can't wait to leave town.
Such is life for a 20-year-old in his fifth and final season of junior hockey eligibility. Few Spokane Chiefs have played more games or scored more goals and points than Holmberg, but he's eager to move on from the Western Hockey League to fulfill his lifelong dream of playing pro hockey.
"I love Spokane," Holmberg stresses. "I mean, from the first day I got here, the support was amazing. I've lived in three houses now [WHL players board with local families], and everybody's been amazing. The city as a whole, it's a fun city. It's the best place to play on a Saturday night. There's nothing else like it."
Holmberg has increased his goals and points each season in Spokane. He got off to a torrid start this season, and after ending a brief slump with a pair of two-goal games last weekend, leads the WHL in goals with 51, adding 49 assists for 100 points in 59 games.
"He took great steps every year," Chiefs general manager Tim Speltz says. "But I think more than anything, the thing that he's done the best job at is rounding out his game. He's a complete player now."
Defensive play was once a weakness for Holmberg, a right wing who isn't all that big (5-foot-10, 175 pounds) or physical (less than 100 career penalty minutes). He's never been drafted by a National Hockey League team, even after last season, when he totaled 39 goals and 80 points in 66 games.
"I thought I had a good year," Holmberg says. "I think it's hard whenever you don't get drafted ... [but] it's kind of a blessing in disguise that I wasn't. It always pushes you harder if you can prove someone wrong in the long run."
Holmberg was born in the tiny farm town of Daysland, Alberta (pop. 800). Holmberg's family moved to the Edmonton suburb of Sherwood Park when he was 13 to bolster the hockey careers of the three boys in the family. Older brother Brett played in the minor leagues.
Holmberg says scoring has always come natural to him — "It's the best feeling in the world" — but he's quick to point out a part of his game that is not a strength.
"Obviously," he says with a grin, "I'm not a fighter."
Holmberg, a genial sort who was voted the Chiefs' most sportsmanlike player last year, laughs when he recalls the first and quite possibly last hockey fight of his life. It took place in December during a brawl late in a lopsided loss to Seattle. Holmberg found himself tied up with Sam McKechnie, another undersized WHL veteran not known for dropping the gloves.
"I thought, 'Oh, man, this is it — we're 'going' here," Holmberg recalls.
After all these years, why fight?
"I don't know; I blacked out for a couple minutes," he joked.
Hockey players usually throw every last punch possible. In the case of Holmberg and McKechnie, they abruptly stopped fighting, gave one another a respectful tap on the arm and simply skated off into the sunset.
"I don't think you realize how tiring it is," Holmberg says. "We both, at the end, we're like, 'We're done.'"
Should we expect Holmberg to be fighting again soon?
"I'm going to hold off for a bit," he deadpanned. "So fatigued." ♦
The Spokane Chiefs return to action Sat, Feb. 22, at 7:05 pm against the Kootenay Ice • Spokane Arena • $10-$22 • 535-PUCK • spokanechiefs.com