For most hockey players, being in the Western Hockey League can be difficult initially. A new team, new city, new friends and new home can be strenuous on a 16 or 17-year-old who hasn’t yet finished high school. However, day-to-day life as a WHL player doesn’t get much simpler for the Yamamoto brothers, Keanu (20) and Kailer (18). As Spokane natives – Keanu is a Mead High School graduate and Kailer is currently finishing his senior year – the duo has been gifted with the rarity of playing in the city they were raised in as well as competing for the team they grew up rooting for: the Spokane Chiefs.
“It was really cool hearing my name and getting called up by the Spokane Chiefs, my hometown team,” Kailer said. “I get to live at home, go to school with all my friends, play with my brother, eat home-cooked meals from my mom and sleep in my own bed.”
The Chiefs grabbed Kailer in the fifth round of the 2013 WHL Bantam Draft and he has exceeded expectations. Now in his third season, he has totaled an outstanding 201 points (74 goals, 127 assist) in 175 games. Despite missing six games earlier this season due to injury, the 18-year-old NHL top prospect has 73 points (32 goals, 41 assists) on the season, which ranks ninth in the WHL and leads the Chiefs.
Keanu’s entrance to the WHL came after a different path than his younger brother. He was an undrafted camp invitee in 2013 and decided to give the WHL a shot. “It was really cool. It was my first camp actually,” he said. Keanu, like Kailer, was then playing for the Los Angeles Junior Kings Under-16 program in California. “I wasn’t really planning on going to the WHL. I never really talked to the Chiefs, and then (Kailer) got drafted and they said they had an extra spot at camp.”
Keanu impressed enough to earn a spot on the roster. Four years later, the now 20-year-old has also proven to be been a steal for the Chiefs; he is currently having his best season yet with 58 points (22G, 36A) in 57 games so far, including a six-assist game, which was one shy of the franchise record. In 256 career games, he has 166 points (67 goals, 99 assists).
Being a Spokane Chief is extra special for the Yamamotos, who were raised to bleed red and white. “We used to be season ticket holders before we started traveling for hockey, actually,” Kailer noted. Even while playing away from home, the brothers still found time to attend games as often as possible. “We went whenever we were in town.”
Keanu had to pause for a second to think about his most recent memory of attending a Chiefs game as a fan. “(The Chiefs) were playing Tri in the playoffs,” he recalled. “I used to come with friends and we used to sit wherever, up top, but it was almost completely sold out at the arena. It was crazy.”
The city of Spokane is no stranger to homegrown hockey success. Tyler Johnson of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Derek Ryan of the Carolina Hurricanes are two former Chiefs who have also found success from their roots in Spokane. Both are now playing in the best league in the world. It comes as no surprise that the Yamamotos idolized their fellow Spokane natives; Keanu landed on Ryan as his favorite Chief while Kailer chose Johnson. That connection has stuck. “We work out with Tyler and Derek in the summer,” Keanu said. “Tyler’s mom taught us how to skate when we were younger,” Kailer added.
However, this time around it’s a little different with the organization rostering not only Spokane natives, but two brothers from the area at the same time. That familiarity has helped the Chiefs with their on-ice chemistry showing through. “Growing up I knew all of his tendencies, so it helps a lot,” Kailer said. “When we are on the ice together it’s really fun.”
“We are always talking during the game, just about anything (we see),” Keanu added.
With both competing at the same position, the brothers play together occasionally, but they do most of their damage together on power play opportunities. With each as part of Spokane’s first power play unit, Keanu has 20 power play assists on the season, which is good for 11th in the WHL, while Kailer is tied for 23rd with 16. Both have eight power play goals.
The Yamamotos first played hockey together at a young age, often to ease the travel burden for their parents. Kailer, who looked up to his older brother throughout his childhood, was thrilled to play with his sibling. The Chiefs provided an opportunity for him to compete with Keanu at the highest level for their age group. “It was really cool. We got to travel together,” Kailer noted.
As you’d expect, their brotherly life was and remains filled with competition and arguments, especially at a young age. For two teammates, translating home life to team life would seem to be difficult, but not for the Yamamotos. “It was hard at first,” Kailer explained. “But he was really nice to me. He would probably be more mean to me at the house and not the rink. He was actually really nice to me at the rink.”
Keanu shared the same sentiment when asked about their sibling relationship. “I mean we are brothers, so we fight sometimes,” but they both agreed that they are close and have grown tighter as they’ve aged. “We get along pretty well,” Keanu added, while noting that balance is key when playing hockey with his brother. “We don’t talk about hockey too much (at home), but it obviously comes up because it’s our life. We try to make it level.”
After many years of hockey memories, they have developed a plethora of stories playing as teammates that they will cherish forever. For Kailer, his favorite memory was a result of Keanu’s leadership. “It was probably my first home game for the Chiefs when I was 16,” he said. “I was really nervous, so Keanu calmed me down a little bit.” Kailer definitely looks up to his brother and views him as a building block to his hockey success. “Ever since day one with the Chiefs, he has really helped me evolve my game and become a better leader. I just follow in his footsteps.”
Keanu has embraced that leadership role for his younger brother, but doesn’t talk about it much. “I try to set a good example,” he briefly added.
Unfortunately, the brothers’ days of playing hockey together are coming to an end. This marks the final year of Keanu’s WHL eligibility, as he’ll graduate out due to age after this season. “We’re pretty close,” Keanu said. “I know some brothers aren’t that close, but we are pretty close. We do stuff together. I’ll miss hanging out with him.”
“I’ll miss just having somebody around the house,” Kailer inserted. “It’s always pretty fun having somebody that I can talk to after every game if I have a tough game or even if I have a good game. It’s always good to have him there. Once he leaves, it will probably be quiet around the house.”
Kailer will have to adjust to playing hockey without his older brother. “It will definitely be a test,” he continued. “He really helped me over these past three years and showed me the ropes a little bit.”
What’s next for the Yamamoto brothers? Keanu plans to go college and possibly extend his career at that level. His four years of WHL experience has earned him four years of scholarship, including tuition, room and board, and books via the WHL Education Scholarship program. He could follow in the footsteps of Derek Ryan, who earned a degree at the University of Alberta while continuing to play hockey after graduating from the WHL (former WHL players are eligible to play in college in Canada, but not the NCAA) before making the leap to the professional level. Kailer is eligible for the 2017 NHL Entry Draft and has been identified as a top prospect, predicted to be a potential first round pick. The expectation is he will be back in Spokane next year, but he’ll have the opportunity to impress an NHL team at their camp following the draft.
And for the Chiefs? The Yamamotos’ legacy will live forever in the history books, not only for the Chiefs, but for the city of Spokane as well. Keanu is currently tied for 29th in franchise history in games played for the Spokane Chiefs with 256. If he suits up for all of the team’s remaining regular season games, he will end his career tied with Jason Podollan for 19th.
Kailer recently became the 10th Chief ever – and first American-born – to record 200 career points in three or fewer seasons. He is on pace to enter the top 25 in career points (currently 27th) by the end of the season and is already tied for 22nd in career assists with 127; he even has an outside chance to crack the top 25 in career goals this year as he needs 14 more to tie for 25th. His career mark of 1.15 points per game would place him 14th, with nearly every player ahead of him playing during the high-scoring era of the 1980’s and early 90’s.
There is no doubt that Keanu and Kailer have cemented themselves as key figures of the Spokane Chiefs for the past three years. It’s easy to see that their legacy will last even longer. The city will never forget all the memories that they have given their hometown team together.
Catch the Yamamotos in action at Spokane Arena on February 25 for Mike’s Hard Pink Lemonade Breast Cancer Awareness Night & Helmet Giveaway at the Arena as they host the Tri-City Americans. The Chiefs will wear special pink-accented jerseys to be auctioned off for charity. Tickets for the 25th and all Chiefs home games are available in-person at the Chiefs’ Ticket Office, over-the-phone at 509-535-PUCK and online at ticketswest.com or spokanechiefs.com.