KITCHENER, Ont. - The Spokane Chiefs might be in the Memorial Cup final a year earlier than planned, but they'll take it.
The Western Hockey League champions missed the playoffs for a second straight year just two seasons ago. The seeds were sewn during those lean years for a resurgence. Nobody thought it would come this soon. "When we were building this team we thought next year was going to be our best year," Chiefs general manager Tim Speltz said. "We're going to be hard-pressed to be better than this.
"When your players decide this is going to be the year, they're the ones who decide."
The Chiefs went 3-0 in the round-robin of the 2008 MasterCard Memorial Cup and thus earned a bye to Sunday's final and four days off.
They'll meet either the Kitchener Rangers or Belleville Bulls in the championship game Sunday (4:30 p.m. ET)
The OHL champion Rangers and runner-up Bulls (1-1) were to conclude the preliminary round Wednesday and meet again in Friday's semifinal (7 p.m. ET).
The Chiefs practised Wednesday and looked forward to Thursday's trip to Toronto where stops at the Hockey Hall of Fame, Wayne Gretzky's Restaurant and Rogers Centre for a Blue Jays' game were planned.
Speltz has been the GM in Spokane for 20 years and the ebb and flow of a junior hockey team's fortunes are familiar to him.
The Chiefs, owned by former baseball players and brothers Bobby and George Brett, won a Memorial Cup in 1991 and hosted it in 1998.
They didn't make the playoffs in 1999, but won 47 games the next season, which was the last of Mike Babcock's six seasons behind Spokane's bench before he moved on to an NHL career.
He's currently coaching the Detroit Red Wings in the upcoming Stanley Cup final against Pittsburgh.
The silver lining in the tough years for Spokane was the opportunity to draft early in the WHL bantam draft, but with that comes a pressure on a team's scouts.
Pick the wrong players and your team stays in a downward spiral.
Spokane took forward Drayson Bowman eighth in 2004, forward Mitch Wahl fourth in 2005 and defenceman Jared Cowen No. 1 in 2006. They have been impact players for Spokane at this Memorial Cup.
Entering play Wednesday, Bowman, a Carolina Hurricanes draft pick, leads the tournament in scoring with five goals and two assists, just ahead of Wahl with two goals and four assists.
Cowen, from Allan, Sask., may have just turned 17 in January, but plays like a veteran and logs a ton of minutes. The defenceman combines size, speed and skill and is a candidate to play for Canada's under-18 and under-20 teams in the future.
Cowen says his only concern when Spokane drafted him first overall was the distance from home. But he looks like he can't believe his good fortune playing in a Memorial Cup final in his rookie season.
"Everyone says we're a year ahead of our time to be here, but we're here now," Cowen said.
It takes more than drafting three players to double a team's victories from 25 to 50 in the span of two seasons.
Speltz hired Bill Peters, once an assistant coach with the team, back from the University of Lethbridge in 2005 to be head coach.
Spokane didn't make the playoffs his first season at the helm, but the turnaround was underway as the Red Deer, Alta., native began shifting leadership among the players and quashing bad habits.
"It took that year for us all to understand about winning," captain Chris Bruton said. "He set the foundation of working hard in practice, that little things matter, buying into a team motto and any petty, selfish individual stuff, we were weeding out. It took a year to do that."
The Chiefs lost to Everett in the first round of playoffs last season, but returning to the post-season was a mental springboard for the team.
The players could see the talent they had and the direction they could go.
"You see teams get into these tizzies and when you end up at the bottom you don't want to stay there," Speltz said. "When you're at the bottom, you've got to have some things go right that next year or that same mindset creeps in and you're just continually fighting to get the guys on the right side.
"Last year was a key year taking a step forward. There's no doubt about it."
The Chiefs' play a clinical, defensive and disciplined style in taking away time, space and scoring lanes from the opposition. Spokane scores off turnovers and transition.
Only for two periods against Belleville did they get into a run-and-gun contest, but reined themselves back in for a 5-4 overtime win Saturday.
"It's a little bit different hockey out here," said Bruton. "There's a lot of talent and speed. They do like to do the odd-man rush thing and a river-hockey kind of game.
"It's tough because you think 'maybe I can get a two-on-one' but we can't do that. We're not that team. You can't go out there and score two goals and give up two goals."
Bruton, from Calgary, has been a Chief all four of his major junior seasons through the famine and now the feast.
"You've got to have the bad with the good and I'm definitely reaping the good right now," he said.