by HOWIE STALWICK & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he Spokane Chiefs, far removed from their glory days, had finished the year in last place. Al Conroy was fired as coach and the Chiefs shocked more than a few outsiders when they opted to replace a former NHL player like Conroy with a former Junior B player/rink manager/hockey school director who had just guided a college team to a (blush) 3-23-2 season.
Three years later, Bill Peters is making Tim Speltz look like a genius for hiring him. The Chiefs tied the team record of 50 victories in the regular season, climbed as high as No. 1 in the Canadian Hockey League (North American major junior hockey) and Western Hockey League polls. By winning a classic playoff series with arch-rival Tri-City, they advanced to the WHL finals -- with a chance at competing for junior hockey's major prize, the Memorial Cup.
Speltz's decision to hire Peters was made easier by the fact that the longtime Chiefs general manager knew Peters so well as a man and a coach.
"He's a guy's guy, a people person, a good communicator," Speltz says.
Peters served as a Chiefs assistant coach for three years immediately prior to his three years as head coach of the woefully underfinanced University of Lethbridge (Alberta) Pronghorns. Speltz says he chose Conroy over Peters as head coach in 2002 because of Peters' lack of head coaching experience, so Peters headed to Lethbridge to remedy the problem, though he knew winning would be difficult.
"He got everything out of his team that he could," Speltz says. "There's no way they're going to be able to compete."
The same could be said for the Chiefs during Peters' first year back in Spokane, when a team low on talent and character produced a second straight last-place finish.
"A culture change had to be made," team captain Chris Bruton says.
Peters saw to that, which came as no surprise to those who know him.
"He's a take-charge guy, a get-it-done guy," Speltz says.
"He's one of the best hockey minds out there," Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock says.
It was Babcock, then coaching the Chiefs, who gave Peters his first WHL assistant coaching job in 1999-2000. The two have remained close since Peters played for Babcock at Red Deer (Alberta) College.
"He's just a hell of a guy," Babcock says. "He's a passionate hockey man."
Indeed, the 43-year-old Peters is forever studying game tapes and scouting reports in his nondescript office in the bowels of the Spokane Arena. His standard attire is workout shorts and a T-shirt, coffee at the ready on a desk that is covered in an avalanche of papers.
"One of his great lines," Babcock says, "is, 'How do you dig a ditch? Head down and ass up.'"
Peters came by his work ethic honestly in Alberta, having grown up on a cattle and grain farm in tiny Three Hills before moving to the small oil town of Killam. Peters says he once worked a four-month stretch with two days off as a pipe fitter's assistant on the oil lines, but he says farm life was tougher.
"Every summer, we painted the barn red," he recalls. "Worst job in the history of the world."
Peters was just 24 when he got into coaching as the head coach of his old Junior B team in Killam ("I loved it"). However, the nursing career of wife Denise -- Peters' high school sweetheart -- whisked them away to Texas a year later. Peters helped open the first ice arena in San Antonio, and he spent summers running hockey schools throughout the United States and Canada.
Before leaving San Antonio for Spokane, Peters enjoyed an impressive pro hockey "career." Desperately shorthanded one night, the local minor league team put in a call for Peters, whose playing experience had been limited for years to the occasional rec league game. He notched an assist and goal on his first two shifts and finished with three points in his only pro game. "I got a penalty, too," he says with a smile. "I slashed a guy off the draw. He was giving me the business, so I gave it back. He wanted to fight me, but I was too tired."
Peters says his family (including a young son and daughter) "loves Spokane." Yet while he values the "top-notch" people in the Chiefs organization, he dreams of following Babcock to the NHL. And the Chiefs' stellar play has boosted Peters' profile, particularly after Spokane downed Tri-City in a memorable playoff series. Five of the seven games required overtime, including three double overtimes.
"I've never heard of anything like that," Peters says. "It was a battle from start to finish."
Speaking of battles, the gritty Bruton says he's had a few with Peters the past three years, although Bruton is quick to credit Peters for his key role in the Chiefs' turnaround.
"We've had our battles," Bruton says. "We both joked around one time that if he was anything but a coach or GM, we probably would have got in a fistfight already. We're both competitive people, and we both want the same thing."
Just win, baby. That's what it's all about for Peters, Bruton and the rest of the Chiefs.