Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Things that make me go hmm

    Shea Weber at 2004 Memorial Cup
    • Here we are in early June. The Stanley Cup has been handed out to the Washington Capitals and so much is going on in the Western Hockey League. Before we get to that, congratulations to former Kelowna Rockets captain Madison Bowey. The 23 year-old will have his name engraved on the Stanley Cup. If you weren't paying attention, Bowey played 51 regular season games with the Capitals this season but was a healthy scratch in the Caps run towards hockey's Holy Grail. NHL rules stipulate that any player who participates in 41 regular season games with the championship team or one playoff game will have his name etched on the Stanley Cup. Bowey is the fifth Rockets player to do so. Scott Parker (2001-Colorado), Travis Moen (2007-Anaheim), Kyle Cumiskey (2015-Chicago) and Duncan Keith (2010-20-13-2015-Chicago) have all raised the Stanley Cup over their head.   
    • I thought it was classy to see the Capitals dressing the 'healthy scratches' for the presentation of the Stanley Cup on the ice after the series clinching win. Maybe it is a common occurrence, but to see Bowey all geared up, wearing his jersey with #22 on the back and his name bar was pretty cool. Sure, while not an integral part of the playoff run itself, that shouldn't diminish the work the Winnipeg resident put in during his first full season in the NHL. 
    • To think how fortunate Bowey has been in his hockey career. A gold medal at the World Junior Hockey Championships, a WHL title in 2015 and now a Stanley Cup ring. Not bad for the Capitals second round pick (53rd overall) in 2013.
    • In case you forgot, Bowey still holds the single season Kelowna Rockets record for goals by a defenceman with 21. Cal Foote came close to tying that record this past season with 19 goals on the blue-line.
    • I have to come clean here. I typically don't watch the Stanley Cup finals. I didn't watch a single minute of the series a season ago. Honestly, the interest for me just hasn't been there. I thought it had much to do with a lack of Canadian content that was holding me back. But that all changed in 2018 when the Capitals and Vegas Golden Knights clashed for all the marbles. It was excellent hockey. Sure, some will complain about the officiating, but we saw lots of goals and the pace of play was excellent. My theory was to watch the cup finals until Canada's only hope - the Winnipeg Jets were sadly eliminated. I am glad I kept watching. 
    • Watching Alex Ovechkin raise the Cup for the first time was so nice to see. I often wonder what it means to win the trophy to a European born player, who likely grows up looking at winning the World Championships as the ultimate prize or capturing gold for your country at any international competition like the Ivan Hlinka, the World Junior Hockey Championships or the Olympics. I am sure all of those victories are memorable, but you could clearly see that Ovi was in heaven when his team secured the Stanley Cup and he had a chance to raise it over his head for the first time in his 13 year career. 
    • You sure had to feel good for Braden Holtby. The 28 year-old was excellent in the series. It often looked like his mom was more excited than he was in winning the Stanley Cup! She was definitely the more anxious. It has been interesting to watch him become one of the best goaltenders in the NHL, because honestly, Holtby wasn't anything to write home about when he played in the WHL with the Saskatoon Blades. Granted, living in Kelowna, I could count on one hand the number of times I saw him play with the Blades between 2006 and 2009. Holtby's best year was his last, on a 49 win team where he won 40 games and posted a goals against average of 2.62. A fourth round pick of the Capitals in 2008, the Vezina Trophy winner in 2016 is clearly proven he is one of the league's best.  
    • The biggest story outside of Madison Bowey winning the Stanley Cup was the announcement that Ryan Huska has been named an assistant coach with the Calgary Flames. Huska earned this promotion on merit alone. Typically its the big name coaches or former players that are often the first to be promoted, but Huska paid his dues, proved his worth at the WHL and AHL level and showed through action that he was indeed the real deal. I am so happy for him. It seems like years ago that he was a raw assistant coach with the Kelowna Rockets under the watchful eye of then head coach Marc Habscheid. I remember in the early years, I would often give Huska a ride to his town home in North Glenmore after we both got off the bus in the early morning hours after a long road trip. I lived in a town home complex only a block away, so it only made sense to car pool. But those were also different  times for Huska, who was adjusting to life with a new baby and likely wondering if coaches was indeed the occupation he wanted to pursue.  
    • Huska's promotion wasn't the only big news on the coaching front. I was so pleased to hear that Mitch Love was hired as the head coach of the Saskatoon Blades. He so deserved the interview, but more so deserved the chance to be the head coach after paying his dues as an assistant for so many years with the Everett Silvertips. Being an assistant coach in junior hockey is tough work. Often the pay isn't great, yet the workload and lack of recognition for a team’s success is high. It is a thankless job in some respects, yet those that stick with it do enjoy helping players develop and grow. They also hold out the hope, like the players do, that eventually, they will be head coaches at the WHL level and that will lead to a coaching career in the NHL. 
    • Jordon Cooke has decided to head overseas to pursue his pro hockey career. Good for him. I really like the path Cooke took after his junior hockey career came to an end when he was named the CHL goalie of the year with the Kelowna Rockets in his 20 year-old season. Cooke, now 22, took full advantage of his WHL scholarship money and played four seasons with the University of Saskatchewan Huskies. While being named the Canada West goalie of the year an unprecedented three consecutive times, Cooke also earned a economics degree. Now he can  go play pro in Gap, France with a degree, a few personal accolades at the U-Sports level and pursue his dream of taking a serious shot of possibly playing in the NHL. Hey, the dream isn't over until you say it is.   
    • Marek Skrvne will not return to the Rockets this season. You could see the writing on the wall with his lack of offensive production. While a great teammate and a pleasure to be around, you just can't have a European player, when you are allowed only two on a roster,  make so little in the way of a dent on the score sheet. You just can't. The team would be better served playing a younger, North American prospect and allow him to work on the kinks and get his feet wet over an 18 year-old, fourth line player, who's greatest work was at the face-off circle. Skrvne did make a mark in his brief season in the WHL. Who can forget the fight he had with Vancouver Giants pugilist Darian Skeoch. While one sided, Skrvne quickly got the respect of his teammates after that tilt.   
    • Will the Kelowna Rockets win the bid to host the 2020 Memorial Cup? With Kamloops, Victoria and Lethbridge all in the mix, it won't be easy. If they do win it, I think a few things may come into play.1) The Rockets should have the upper hand on Kamloops considering the Blazers recently gutted their front office by getting rid of its general manager, director of player personnel and head coach. I am not sure how that looks in the eyes of the voting governors. Does it put a black mark on the Blazers bid? Maybe. Maybe not. I do think the Blazers made the right choice by adding Matt Bardsley. 
    • While Victoria is a great spot for the Memorial Cup in 2020, will they land the tournament when the city is playing host with Vancouver for the 2019 World Junior Hockey Championships? That is two awfully big events in back-to-back seasons. Lethbridge, like a field mouse, quietly entered the race at the last second. Considering the Memorial Cup has been played most recently in Regina, Red Deer and Brandon, is it not time the tournament returns to BC for the first time since the Vancouver Giants hosted in 2007?  
    • My biggest concerns when hosting the Memorial Cup is the strength of the host team. It is well documented that the WHL champion has not fared well over the years in the high profile event. A 10 game losing streak by the WHL champ is an ugly statistic. The Rockets are the last champion to win a game, and it came in Quebec City in the semifinals in 2015 against the Quebec Remparts. But how can the four bidding teams in 2020 really know how good they will be in two years’ time? It really is a guessing game.
    • Will money talk when the bids are presented to league governors in early October? Likely. It has in the past, so what would change this time around. Governors of the other teams want to know how much cash they can expect once the tournament comes to a successful conclusion. Each of the 22 teams will get a piece of the pie. The Saskatoon Blades, in 2013, promised a profit of 3.5 million dollars, but they came up short. In the end, the Province of Saskatchewan had to pony up $668,000. It didn't stop there. The province also put up 250 grand to upgrade rink boards and glass, bring the total closer to $918,000. Regina paid 3.65 million for the 100th Memorial Cup and clearly lost money from hosting it with smaller crowds than anticipated. So what will the financial guarantee be in 2020? Does a number below 2 million fail to get consideration? 
    • Ethan Ernst announced last month on Twitter than he indeed signed a players contract with the Kelowna Rockets.Typically, the team doesn't announce these signings like other teams do. The reason? I am not exactly sure, but it's Bruce Hamilton's call. Regardless, the Ernst signing is significant. For those unaware, he was part of the Notre Dame Hound's Telus Cup winning team this past season.
    • I hope to hear some news on the Ethan Bowen front this summer. It would be nice to see him in Kelowna Rockets colours in his 16 year-old season. Honestly, if Ethan is going to make the jump to the WHL, now is the time to do it. Ice time is at a premium with the team looking significantly different than last season. Bowen could play large minutes with the departure of Kole Lind and Dillon Dube and the fact that some rookie forwards from last season are on the bubble with players like Bowen and Ernst able to challenge for roster spots. At this point, the Rockets need good, young skill. Both Bowen and Ernst fall into that category. While you need foot soldiers to have success, when you lose your top 4 point producers and 321 points combined (Lind, Dube, Carsen Twarynski and Cal Foote), it doesn't take a genius to figure out that an uptick in the scoring department is pivotal in 2018-2019.  

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Rockets goalie heads overseas

Jordon Cooke wearing U of S colours

Jordon Cooke admits he will face a significant language barrier when he starts his pro career this fall.

The former Kelowna Rockets goaltender will play in Gap, France this season.

"I am fortunate enough that there are guys that I know who have played in Gap in previous years and I have had the opportunity to reach out and contact them. But their is always uncertainty. I am going to a country where I really don't know the language".

The 25 year-old starred for the University Saskatchewan Huskies for four seasons before deciding to head over to Europe.

"I wanted a place where I can make some money for a reasonable lifestyle and enjoy myself but also play and not have to sit on the bench. I haven't sat in years now and that is what helped me make my decision on what was best for me".       

Cooke succeeded on the ice and in the classroom at the U of S.

While being named the 'Canada West Goalie of the Year' on three separate occasions, he also earned a degree in economics.

"Going to Gap is a stepping stone. It is a one year deal in a location where you come into and hope to move on from there. I have been working hard here and I have found some success and I want to keep going with that".   

Cooke played for the Kelowna Rockets from 2010 until 2014 and was named the CHL Goalie of the Year in his 20 year-old season of major junior hockey. 

Monday, June 4, 2018

Huska ready for NHL

Ryan Huska says the Kelowna Rockets are a significant reason why he is now an assistant coach with
the NHL Calgary Flames.

The 42 year-old spoke glowingly about cutting his teeth as an assistant coach with the WHL franchise in 2003 as an assistant.

"Bruce (Hamilton) hired me as a head coach when I had very limited experience. That was at a time when most coaches that were being hired were of the bigger names".

Huska spent five seasons as an assist before becoming head coach in the summer of 2007.

"For him (Hamilton) to put his trust and faith in me over the years in Kelowna was really the opportunity to learn to coach with his team in Kelowna, the world junior opportunity and from that point to get myself to where I am no , it all starts because he gave me the opportunity at a young age.", Huska comment.

After leaving the Rockets as the winningest coach in franchise history after 7 seasons as a head coach, the likable Huska spent four season guiding the Flames American Hockey team, which relocated from Adirondack, New York to Stockton, California in 2015.

In a results orientated business, Huska knows the pressure to win at the NHL level will be great.

"You want to bring your best to the table everyday. If you put the time in, the pressure will always be there but you can feel comfortable that what you've done is the best of your ability. The expectation now are a lot higher. The expectation now is results and that has changed from where I have been the last few years where development has been priority. It will be a different situation for sure, but one we are really excited about", Huska added.

What's next for Huska?

He and his wife Denise will be busy with a Calgary realtor finding a new place to call home. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Rockets make roster move

Shoot the Breeze Photography

The Kelowna Rockets have parted ways with 18 year-old forward Marek Skrvne. 
Selected in the second round, 111th overall in the Canadian Hockey League Import Draft, the Czech born forward dressed in 69 regular season games as a WHL rookie, scoring 4 times and collecting 13 points.
General Manager Bruce Hamilton says they must build for the future, necessitating Skrvne's release.
"We feel we need to upgrade the defensive side of things and that's what we are looking for".
The Rockets will make one selection in the CHL Import Draft, with 17 year-old Libor Zabransky returning from the Czech Republic in 2018-2019 for his sophomore season.
"Marek was a wonderful man. Marek did nothing to cause the direction we are headed except for the fact that I think we need a defenceman back there as we are trying to build a team for 2020", Hamilton added. 
The CHL Import Draft is traditionally held shortly after the NHL Entry Draft.  

Monday, May 14, 2018

Dream season for Kelowna hockey player

Connor Horning
The Swift Current Broncos are Western Hockey League champions and they can thank an Okanagan hockey player for helping them achieve that goal.

Kelowna born Connor Horning never envisioned his rookie season in the Western Hockey League going this well though.

The Broncos third round bantam pick from 2016 made the team out of training camp.

The 6'3, 180 pound rookie defenceman played in 50 of the Broncos 72 regular season games before dressing in 12 playoff games in the quest for the Ed Chynoweth Cup.

The just turned 17 year-old (May 11th) knew his playing time would be reduced after the Broncos went out and made a series of deals at the trade deadline.

"As a young guy, you have to learn from them (veteran players). I knew after the trade deadline that maybe I wouldn't play that much, but at the end of the day,  it is all worth it because we are champions now".     

Horning told AM 1150 News that the playoff run, which saw the Broncos play a league record 26 games in post season, is something he will never forget.

"Everyone knows you if you play for the Broncos. Just walking down the street in downtown Swift Current, random people will come up to you and say 'Good luck tonight' or 'Go get that win'. The fans here are unbelievable", Horning added.   

Barring an injury, Horning will likely be a healthy scratch at the Memorial Cup, which starts Saturday night for the Broncos against the QMJHL champion, but Horning will do whatever he can to support his teammates.

"In that locker room we have such a strong bond. We are so close. We are such good buddies and we have so many leaders on our team. If we were having a rough game, we would have all 20 guys stepping up to try to take charge and that really helped us".

Horning will be joined in the press box in Regina by 15 year-old Ben King, the Broncos first round WHL bantam pick in 2017 who played this past season with the Okanagan Midget Rockets and calls Vernon his off season home.

The Broncos won the WHL championship Sunday night with a 3-0 victory over the Everett Silvertips, captured the league title for the first time since 1993.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Rockets raise money for Humboldt

Erik Gardiner grieves at Humboldt Broncos vigil    
Vancouver Canucks prospect Kole Lind is one of the high profile players participating this weekend in a fundraising hockey tournament for the Humboldt Strong Foundation. 

The Foundation was set up to support the players and families involved in a tragic bus crash April 6th that the claimed the lives of 15 players, coaches and team personnel when a semi trailer failed to stop at a flashing stop sign. 

Lind's team includes former Kelowna Rockets Reid and Erik Gardiner, who were born and raised in Humboldt and knew many of those killed or injured.

"It means a bit more for me and Erik. We knew lots of the kids on that bus and it is our hometown. I think it will be good (the tournament) for everybody and will help with the healing process", said Reid Gardiner.     

Brodan Salmond, Leif Mattson, James Hilsendager and former Rockets captain Rodney Southam will also participate in the 'Hockey for Humboldt' non-contact tournament, where each team had to make a minimum donation of 15 hundred dollars to participate.

All the games will be played at the Credit Union Iplex, the home of the Swift Current Broncos, who are currently in Everett participating in the WHL final.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Rockets do no 'Wong' by selecting skilled forward

Trevor Wong
It is anyone's guess what Trevor Wong wants for a gift when he turns 15 tomorrow, but the product of Vancouver, BC may have received an early birthday gift. The 5'8, 135 pound forward was chosen in the first round of Thursday's WHL bantam draft.
Wong was taken 18th overall by the Kelowna Rockets, a team that took a gamble on a prospect who has already verbally committed to playing NCAA hockey in Denver down the road.
It should come as no surprise that Wong is getting attention from teams both north and south of the border. Despite being small, many are comparing him to NHL hall of famer Paul Kariya. Sure, Wong's father, Ed, is of Chinese decent and his mother is Indonesian, but the comparison has more to do with where both grew up (Kariya was born in North Vancouver) and how the two are undersized yet are mesmerizing with the puck.
Here are a few takeaways from my conversation with Trevor, who is competing with St. George's (the prep team he plays with) at a hockey tournament in Philadelphia this week. I also spoke to his father Ed, who seemed awfully pleased his sons WHL playing rights are owned by the Kelowna Rockets.

  • Trevor's father Ed called it a 'proud moment' when I asked him to describe his thoughts about his son being taken by the Rockets.  
  • Ed Wong is no stranger to the Western Hockey League. Born in Moose Jaw Saskatchewan, he went to the University of Manitoba before moving to Vancouver in 1992.  
  • While Trevor Wong has committed to NCAA Denver, it appears from my conversation that they have not closed the door on the WHL. 
  • Wong was invited down to Denver in November to take a better look at the program and the facilities there.
  • Ed Wong admitted that he talked to several WHL teams, but the Rockets were not one of those teams.
  • Trevor told me 'it was pretty cool' to be drafted by the Rockets and he has heard 'nothing but good things' about the organization.   
  • The Rockets selected 11 players in the 2018 WHL bantam draft. Of those 11, 7 were forwards, 3 were defenceman and one was a goalie.  

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Rockets bid for 2020 Memorial Cup

Rockets GM Bruce Hamilton and MC chairman Tom Dyas  

Winning the Memorial Cup in 2004 in front of the hometown crowd was a memory Kelowna Rockets general manager Bruce Hamilton will never forget.
The architect of one of the most successful junior hockey franchises in all of Canada wants to do it all over again.
The Rockets organization made it official Thursday by throwing their hat into the ring by announcing they will bid for the 2020 Memorial Cup.
Hamilton says if league governors grant them the right to host the 10 day tournament, it will be better than it was 16 years ago.
"We have more arms to reach out and grab", when speaking of the volunteer base that exists in Kelowna. "We needed to make it bigger and better. We need new ideas. We can't stand by and do the same thing".
The organization has enlisted businessman Tom Dyas to chair the bid committee, who will make a presentation before WHL governors in early October.
"If there is a community that is going to raise the bar on tournaments of this nature, it would be this community. With its involvement, with its love for the sport of hockey, it is something that will just happen almost naturally."        
Buffalo Sabres defenceman Josh Gorges was on hand for the announcement. Gorges was the captain of the Rockets when they won junior hockey's ultimate prize.
"I am excited about the fact that they have an opportunity to bring the Memorial Cup back to Kelowna. I think it is a great spot for it, and to be honest, I don't think there’s a better spot for it".   
Kelowna will compete for the right to host the 2020 Memorial Cup with Kamloops and likely Victoria, who have yet to formally announce their interest in the marquee event.  

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Miles away yet still mourning

A picture I took of now NHLer Tyson Barrie before boarding the Kelowna Rockets bus
I've ridden on a junior hockey bus for 23 years. That's over 1,000 times without incident. Heck, current Edmonton Oilers bench boss Todd McLellan attempted to teach me the game of chess without success on a junior hockey bus. I've helped the bus driver put chains on the Kelowna Rockets bus on an icy highway between Spokane and Tri City. I've watched movies, some good yet mostly bad on what can affectionately be called the 'Iron Lung'.

Whether it is sharing a laugh or attempting, with little success, to get some shuteye with the use of a body pillow on the floor of the bus, not for a split second have I ever taken for granted the safety while traveling across Western Canada at the United States.

I've logged many miles with the likes of McLellan, Brad McEwan, Marc Habscheid, Jeff Truitt, Ryan Huska, Dan Lambert and current Kelowna Rockets head coach Jason Smith just to name a few. Thankfully, every time we arrive at our destination safely we promptly return home without incident. While measured by wins and losses over the course of the hockey season, we are agonizingly reminded again, of how blessed we are at the conclusion of the hockey season that we can say, 'We made it'. Sadly, the Humboldt Broncos and the coaches and players that perished in Friday's incident near Tisdale, Saskatchewan can't utter those same words.

I was crushed to hear 15 members of the SJHL team were killed or injured after a semi trailer unit t-boned the team bus at an intersection without adhering to a stop sign. In a split second lives were changed. The hockey world was changed. Not for a hour. Not for a day. Not for a year. The hockey world will be changed forever.

Being a father of twin 15 year-old boys, I can not imagine the shear emotional pain the families that lost loved ones are going through right now. It has to be nothing short of devastating to see so many young lives being extinguished in the blink of an eye. The only thing I can remotely draw parallels too was when a  teammate of mine, Nix Anderson, lost his life while traveling home from Swift Current to Meadow Lake in the winter of 1992.

Nix Anderson and I played in the White Mud Hockey League with the Eastend Jets. We would often pay for gas as Nix, 19,  drove with pride his new Chevy Beretta to and from road games. Often driving well over the speed limit in an effort to get us to Eastend or any other road game along the circuit, I often shuttered at the speed in which he drove us and his valued vehicle along the narrow stretch of paved highway. Not once did I say anything about the speed, only to regret later not opening my mouth when Nix was killed behind the wheel of that car when he lost control while heading back home to Meadow Lake during less than ideal road conditions.
Attending his funeral shortly after the fatal accident, it left a lasting impression and made me question my own immortality, even though I was 24 at the time and still had the misconception that I was invincible.

In the fall of 1986, when the Western Hockey League's Swift Current Broncos re-locating to my hometown from Lethbridge, going to games was a must see event. The players were local heroes in the community of 15 thousand. You knew every player by name and felt the team represented everything good about who you were. They put the city on the map and made you feel a sense of pride every time they beat bigger cities like Regina, Saskatoon, Moose Jaw and Prince Albert.
When tragedy struck on December 30th of that year, the entire community was in mourning. Four adopted sons to many, or brothers to others, were lost when the team's bus crashed just outside of Swift Current while traveling for a road game in Regina.
In a flash, the lives of Scott Kruger, Trent Kresse, Chris Mantyka and Brent Ruff were snuffed out.
Well over 30 year's later, the Swift Current Broncos bus accident remains fresh in my mind. Those players. Those families. That mourning as a community will never leave me.

While 13 hundred kilometers away from the bus crash that claimed 15 members of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League's Humboldt Broncos Friday night, the impact of that horrible tragedy makes my heart pound yet again. I knew none of the coaches. I did not know any of the players. But that doesn't matter. The lives of the families, friends and those in Humboldt that cheered them on, win or lose, are forever changed.

Will we ever truly heal from this recent tragedy? Sadly no.
Undoubtedly we will cope, but Swift Current has never forgotten.
Those lost on that Humboldt Broncos bus will forever be remembered.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Gorges career in jeopardy?

It may be the end of the line for Josh Gorges.
The Kelowna minor hockey product has played close to 800 NHL games, but his career may come to an end as the Buffalo Sabres play their final game of the season Saturday night against the Florida Panthers.
The 33 year-old Gorges has been a healthy scratch for much of the season, playing in only 33 of 80 games on the league's worst team.
When AM 1150 spoke to Gorges this past summer, he knew 'Father Time' wasn't on his side.
"The game is getting younger and faster. You watch these kids come in, 18, 19, 20 years old. The way they can play the game. The way they skate. It puts a lot of pressure on us (veterans) to keep working in the off-season to keep pace with these young guys".        
The greying 13 year veteran will see his contract end with the buzzer sounds Saturday night. 
"You have to know where you stand. Can I skate with these guys? Probably not foot for foot with alot of them. You have to think the game quicker and get the puck into players hands that can go skate", Gorges added.        
The Kelowna product hasn't played in more than 6 consecutive games this season after not being a health scratch in 10 seasons playing in San Jose, Montreal and with Buffalo.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Upset in round one? Not even close.

Shoot the Breeze Photography
  • Did we witness an upset in the opening round when the Tri City Americans eliminated the Kelowna Rockets in four straight games? Hardly. If you were not paying attention, the Rockets were struggling mightily down the stretch. Despite a five game winning streak in their back pocket entering the post season, those wins came against inferior competition. Sorry playoff-less Kamloops and Prince George, but you both weren't very good. That said, the Rockets squeezed out wins against them down the stretch. It left me feeling uneasy. Conversely, the Americans were unhealthy all season long and were just getting their entire team back in the final few weeks of the season, They entered the playoffs with 6 wins in their final 7 games, all against US Division opponents. As one media observer pointed out, the Americans could have had 45+ wins had they played in the BC Division. The colleague even pointed out the Rockets wouldn't have enjoyed a 40+ win season had the roles been reversed. It is hard to argue considering the Rockets had just two wins south of the border all season along. Regardless, the Americans, with 38 wins this season, wasn't a true indication of exactly how good they indeed were. Only GM Bob Tory knew that his team was underachievers and envisioned how good they could be if healthy and how much better they would get if they acquired elite d-man Jake Bean from the Calgary Hitmen. You don't make that trade if you don't have a belief that indeed your team can play with the big boys in the WHL. Tory is no dummy. He isn't a dreamer. Tory knew what he had and wasn't scared to make it better when Bean was obtained when no one saw it coming.
  • So let's dispel the notation of this being an upset...because it was anything but. Did I think the Rockets would be swept? No, I did not. But I knew goaltending would play a significant factor in this series and it did. Patrick Dea stole the show in game one with a 39 save shutout performance and the 20 year-old needed to only be average after that point. And honestly, Dea was just ok the rest of the way. If I see a downfall of the Americans going forward, it is in that position. Rockets rookie James Porter Junior started all four games and struggled with consistency. While I thought he made some terrific saves in game four, it was the saves that he was unable to make that were costly. Case in point was Morgan Geekie's first goal of the game which came late in the second period when the dynamic forward was able to squeeze the puck past Porter to make it 2-1. Porter was in a great position and it looked like he had it, but it somehow found it's way through him. I didn't like Nolan Yaremko's third period goal either, where the puck was literally chipped over Porter during a mad scramble. Let's don't forget Porter's massive save on Yaremko in the first period when he was all alone in front of the net to keep the game 1-0, but it was those series of backbreaking goals when the line between winning and losing is so thin that made a significant difference.
  • A defender of goaltending in general on this blog, before we pile on Porter let's remember the Rockets organization was taking a significant risk by starting a rookie 17 year-old in the playoffs. It was unchartered territory for this team, who typically go with 19 or 20 year-old netminders at the most important time of the season. So, if you are going to roll the dice and not upgrade in that position, you live with the results. Seventeen year-old Carl Stankowski's hero like effort last season for the WHL champion Seattle Thunderbirds was an anomaly. Going a long distance with a wet behind the ears goalie is not common place.
  • Morgan Geekie had Porter's number. With 9 goals in the series, it was clear that Porter had problems when Geekie had the puck on his stick. I've seen it happen before...as early as last season to be exact. I remember every time Reid Gardiner had the puck on his stick, Portland Winterhawks netminder Cole Kehler just couldn't read where Gardiner was about to shoot it. It seemed Geekie had gotten into the head of Porter much like Gardiner owned Kehler a season ago in round two. Gardiner had 7 goals in that series against the Winterhawks if you want statistical evidence.   
  • While goaltending is pivotal at this time of the year, team defense is needed especially if that area of your game is in question. But lacking depth on the blue-line made it hard to defend. James Hilsendager was playing hurt, so it was up to Cal Foote, Gordie Ballhorn, Braydyn Chizen and Kaedan Korczak to carry the mail. Libor Zabransky saw spot duty, but it was tough sledding on the blue-line. The Rockets surrendered 24 goals in 4 playoff games. That is the most goals the team has given up in one playoff series - ever. The team lost 5-0, 9-7, 5-3 and 5-3. What you were asking the forwards to do was score more than 5 goals per game in order to win.
  • The Americans did two things significantly better than the Rockets. 1) They played a better team game. Routinely, the Americans would dump pucks into the zone from the blue-line and chase it. The Rockets, almost like it was evil if they did the same, wanted to skate the puck into the zone and make a move around a defenceman to create a scoring chance. More times than not, it failed. 2) The Americans were hungrier in front of the opposition net. How many times did they score from mad scrambles in front of Porter? They were always looking for secondary chances on goal. The Rockets, which was common place throughout the season, played more of a perimeter game and relied on goals from the face-off dots. While visually pretty to watch, jamming away at loose pucks in the skates of a defender or goalie was like the hair on my bald spot. Sporadic at best. The Americans d-men often feathered or saucered a puck towards the net, hoping it would be knocked down and a mad scramble would ensue.
  • When you look at really good teams, the fourth line typically makes some type of contribution. If they don't contribute, then at least they don't hurt you. The Americans were able to safely put those players on the ice with nothing adverse happening. It makes a big difference if that trust factor is there.
  • The Rockets elected to play Dillon Dube with Kole Lind and Carsen Twarynski in game four. And why not? With all offensive eggs in one basket, Dube had two goals and that line was often a handful. But as good as Dube and Lind were, it seemed like they were better separated than together. The two had some chemistry, but something was always missing there. The two often wanted to bring the puck into the zone themselves rather than using each other to make it easier.
  • The four playoff games consisted of 240 minutes of hockey. Of those 240 minutes, the Rockets carried the lead for just 26 minutes and 11 seconds. That lead was only enjoyed in game two. It was the dreaded 9-7 loss. In games one, three and four, the Rockets either trailed the game or had it tied, but never enjoyed the lead in three of the four games.
  • The Americans opened the scoring in three of the four games and carried the lead into the third period in three of the four.
  • The loss meant the conclusion of the playing careers for 20 year-old's Geordie Ballhorn, Carsen Twarynski and James Hilsendager. I will share more on those three players in a later posting. The team also looses its top four point producers from this season in Kole Lind, Dillon Dube, Carsen Twarynski and Cal Foote. That is a loss of 321 points combined heading into next season. Gulp.
  • The team returns Kyle Topping, Leif Mattson, Connor Bruggen-Cate, Nolan Foote and Kaedan Korczak to name a few. Of the returning players next season, I thought Topping and Korczak showed the best in the four game playoff series. Topping had 2+3=5 in four games and Korczak looked extremely comfortable with 1+3=4.
  • So the season is officially over. The team exits the playoffs in the opening round in a four game sweep for the first time since 2012 when the Portland Winterhawks sent the Rockets packing. Having enjoyed four consecutive trips to the Western Conference final, it feels odd that the team isn't playing hockey after April Fools. This season, the joke is on the Rockets. They are the first team in the WHL playoffs to be eliminated and must now watch with envy as others attempt to attain the Ed Chynoweth Cup.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Rockets backs are against the wall!

  • Pick a cliché. Backs against the wall. Do or die. There is no tomorrow. The Kelowna Rockets are a loss away from their longest off-season in 6 seasons. Morgan Geekie had two goals and an assist in the Tri City Americans 5-3 win last night at the Toyota Center. The win gives the first wildcard seed in the Western Conference a 3-0 lead in the best of seven series with game four tonight in the old building that I knew as Three Rivers Coliseum when it opened in 1987. If the Rockets don't win tonight, it will be the first time since 2012 that the team has been swept in the opening round. Portland ended the Rockets season that year in quick fashion.
  • Let's discuss Dillon Dube's ejection from last night's game. The 19 year-old received a 5 minute major and game misconduct for a hit on Americans defenceman Dylan Coghlan at the midway point of the first period. It was Dube's second ejection in this series after receiving a 5 minute major penalty for charging in game one. I honestly didn't see the hit when it originally happened. The puck was coming up ice when it left Coughlin's stick and I was watching it (puck), not the collision, when it happened inside the Tri Cities zone. After watching it on video replay though, this is what I saw. 1) Dube comes at a high rate of speed towards Coghlan, the puck carrier. 2) Dube doesn't take a stride before making contact, but sticks out his knee and clips Coghlan, who attempts to avoid the collision. 3) It is clearly a penalty. 4) Coghlan goes down and is lying on the ice for over a minute grimacing in pain and is only able to get to the bench with the help of teammates. Coghlan appears to be favoring his left leg and puts no pressure on it as he makes his way off the ice. 5) The injury looks serious. My first thought is Coghlan may be done for the series. 6) The officials gather, with Coghlan still on the ice, essentially not moving. They hand Dube a 5 minute major penalty for kneeing.
  • Let's dig deeper here. I don't see anything good coming from a hit like that. It is going to go one of two ways. Dube is going to blow up Coghlan with a massive open ice hit that will likely be regarded as a charge if he hits him squarely. If he gets a piece of Coghlan, like he did with his leg, it results in a kneeing penalty. Either way, the chances of body contact of any kind on Coghlan in open ice will likely result in a penalty. There is too much separation between the two when they finally come together in the collision. If I'm Dube, I play it smart. Ejected in game one for a suspect charging major, it is best to be physical but don't attempt high risk body contact in open ice at high rates of speed. Lesson learned in game one. It also isn't the wisest decision when the score is 2-1 and only 9 minutes has elapsed from the score-clock. Often times a lack of judgment and frustration go hand-in-hand when the score is out of reach and one team is trying to take physical liberties late in the game. In this case, the infraction came early in game three and the visiting team was in a good position at that point. It wasn't a smart hockey play by a highly intelligent player.
  • On the flip side, what I didn't like about Coghlan's part in the incident was his embellishment on the ice. He clearly wasn't as hurt as he was letting on. After making his way to the bench, he never left and came onto the ice for the second period and looked no worse for wear. But when he is laying face first on the ice and doing his best acting job, the officials have no other choice but to eject Dube from the game. Maybe he is a quick healer? Whether it be Victoria's propensity for diving or this situation, I hate embellishment of any kind. It makes a mockery of the game. Again it was kneeing without question. I just didn't like the overacting.   
  • Is the hit suspendable? If Coughlin is lost long term, than yes. But the fact that Coghlan returned for the second period, essentially unscathed, erases any doubt in my mind that Dube should be in the line-up for game four. Again, Dube deserved a penalty. No debate there. Coghlan's acting job precipitated an ejection from the game. How can the referee's not make that call with Coghlan on the ice looking as if his season is over? Ok, enough of that debate, which is never winnable.
  • I thought it was a rough night for the officiating staff. A missed too many men on the ice call had Morgan Geekie scoring the game winner moments later to make it 4-2. Also, if you watch the Americans 5th goal, Geekie's third period power play goal, Rockets d-man James Hilsendager has his stick whacked out of hands before the goal is scored. Is that not interference? Those are two infractions that resulted in goals.
  • The Rockets penalty killing unit, which has taken a licking in this series was remotely better in game three. While surrendering two power ply goals, the unit was able to kill off the 5 minute major penalty to Dube which could have put the game on ice had the Americans struck a couple of times with the extra man. The Rockets PK has surrendered 7 power play goals in three games. Yikes.
  • I thought Cal Foote's compete late in the game when it was a 5-2 score was impressive. Who fights to the bitter end? Who blocks shots? Who gives up when the score is out of reach? The guy wear #25 doesn't.
  • Having been able to watch Jake Bean over a series of games, I sure like his calm demeanor on the blue-line. His soft hands and ability to escape on-coming fore-checkers is at an elite level.
  • A tough crowd in game three. Tough from the standpoint that the bodies in the stands, while loud and proud, was very small. It is shame that the Americans feature three players that are first round NHL draft picks but the casual fan doesn't really take notice or appreciate it.
  • Facing playoff elimination, the Rockets will have to pull out all the stops tonight in order to force a game five Saturday at Prospera Place. If the Americans win tonight, they will advance to the second round for the first time in 5 seasons.  

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Rockets need a win on the road

Cal Foote
Game Day Preview: Welcome to game three. The Kelowna Rockets trail the Tri City Americans 2-0 after a 5-0 loss in game one (Thursday) and a crazy 9-7 setback in game two (Saturday). The game one win snapped a 20 game losing streak for the Americans are Prospera Place. The story in this series has been Tri City’s power play going 5 for 6. The Rockets are a respectable 3 for 8 in the series after going 3 for 4 in game two. Both teams have opened the scoring once with both teams have held the lead going into the third period. The Rockets are making their 11th straight appearance in the WHL post season. The team has missed only once in franchise history. The Rockets have appeared in four straight Western Conference finals. The Portland Winterhawks were able to reach the WCF five times between 2011 and 2015.

Game One Recap: Patrick Dea made 39 saves in a 5-0 shutout. The Americans carried a 2-0 lead into the third period before striking for three power play goals. Michael Rasmussen and Morgan Geekie each had 2+1=3 in the win.

Game Two Recap: Rockets leading scorer Kole Lind had 2+2=4 and Captain Cal Foote had 1+2=3 in a 9-7 loss. The Rockets gave up the lead four times in the setback. Nolan Foote, Carsen Twarynski, Kyle Topping and Kaedan Korczak scored for the home team. James Porter Junior made 12 of 16 saves before giving way to Brodan Salmond.  

Digging Deeper: These two teams met four times during the regular season, with the Rockets going 2-1-1-0. While separated by only 8 points in the Western Conference standings, the two teams allowed the exact same number of goals (249). The Rockets are facing the Americans in the opening round for the second time in three years. In 2015, the Rockets eliminated the Americans in four games on their way to winning the Ed Chynoweth Cup. Dillon Dube has the most playoff experience with 55 games under his belt. Dube has 14+25=39 in those 55 playoff games. Dube is the only remaining member of the 2015 WHL championship team.    

Battle on the blue-line: This series features four-first round NHL draft picks, with three residing on the blue line. Cal Foote, a first round selection of Tampa Bay anchors the Rockets defensive core. The Americans are highlited by Jusso Valamaki, a first round pick of the Calgary Flames. Joining Valamaki is Jake Bean, a first round selection of the Carolina Hurricanes. Let’s don’t forget Gordie Ballhorn and Dylan Coghlan either. Both had terrific seasons and will make some noise both defensively and offensively in this series.

Award Winners: Captain Cal Foote was named the MVP and Top Defenceman in 2017-2018. Foote collected 19+51=70, which was two points shy of the franchise record of 72 points set by Tyson Barrie in 2009-2010. Foote is a two time recipient of the Top Defenceman award, joining the likes of Damon Severson, Gavin McLeod, Tyson Barrie and Luke Schenn, who have also won it twice. Scott Hannan won it a franchise record three times. Gordie Ballhorn was the Unsung Hero and Top +/- winner. Ballhorn shared the Humanitarian award with Carsen Twarynski. Twarynski was named the Most Improved player while Leif Mattson was the Most Sportsmanlike player. Connor Bruggen-Cate was voted the Top Defensive forward. The Rookie of the Year was Kaedan Korczak. 

Broadcasters Notebook: This is the 7th time these two teams have met in the WHL playoffs. The last time was 2015, when the Rockets eliminated the Americans in four straight games…Cal Foote was named the Western Conference nominee for Defenceman of the Year. Foote will go up against Kale Clague of the Moose Jaw Warriors for the league award. The last Rockets player to win WHL Defenceman of the year was Tyson Barrie in 2009-2010….Foote was also named a Western Conference First Team All-Star while teammate Dillon Dube was named a Second Team Western Conference All-Star….Dube has the most playoff experience of anyone in the WHL post season. The 19 year-old has played 56 playoff games, which includes a WHL championship in 2015 and three appearances in the Western Conference final.

Roster Stats:

Player total: 25

Year by Year Breakdown:

20’s (1997) – 3   Ballhorn, Twarynski, Hilsendager           

19’s (1998) - 5   Salmond, Lind, Dube, Cal Foote, Chizen

18’s (1999) - 6   Topping, Mattson, Gardiner, Bruggen-Cate, Cowell, Skvrne

17’s (2000) - 9   Porter, Foote, Zabransky, Kindree, Brennan, McGauley, Kushniryk, Pow, Hair

16’s (2001) - 2   Korczak, Basran

NHL Drafted Players: Cal Foote (Tampa Bay 2017), Kole Lind (Vancouver 2017 - Signed), Dillon Dube (Calgary 2016 - Signed), Carsen Twarynski (Philadelphia 2016 - Signed), Brayden Chizen (Minnesota 2016).  

Game Notes Compiled by Regan Bartel of AM 1150