Christmas came early for the Korczak family.
Friendly Fire: Arch rivals on the ice and roommates off it. Kelowna Rockets forward Mark Liwiski spent the majority of the summer right here in Kelowna rooming with former Prince George Cougars forward Josh Maser. Maser is 21. Liwiski is 19. Does that translate into a messy apartment? "One week I will do the dishwasher and clean and then the next week he will do the dishwasher and garbage. It also helps that my girlfriend stops by and she likes to clean up, so it's good". 'Louie', a nickname given to him by his teammates, realizes that his window of playing pro is closing and it's time to make hay on his hockey career. "My next two years, obviously, I am going to want to put up quite a big leap in numbers, so for sure my leadership will bounce off that". With 8 fighting majors last season, the 19 year-old wanted to make an impact with a long playoff run and success at the 2020 Memorial Cup. "It was pretty disappointing, but you can't hang your head. I just have to brush it off and remember what it felt like and take it into next year." Liwiski spent the summer working at Quail Ridge, which is home to the Quail and Bear golf courses. While doing lawn maintenance, he was able to get in a more than a few rounds this summer. As a side note, older brother Andrew is playing college hockey in Wisconsin this winter.
Welcome to the jungle! No, that's not it. Welcome to the bubble Kaedan Korczak. The 19 year-old has a real good chance of representing his country at the upcoming World Junior Hockey Championships. Korczak is one of 46 players invited to Hockey Canada's month long evaluation camp in Red Deer - November 16th to December 13th. It shouldn't come as no surprise. Korczak has represented Canada several times, including winning gold at the 2018 Hlicka Cup. If he can crack the final roster, he will be the first Rockets player since Nolan Foote, who won gold at last year's tournament.
Shouldering the load: At last count, defenceman Sean Comrie had all 10 fingers intact as he spent the summer with a handsaw building decks back in Edmonton. You can't blame the 20 year-old for being safety conscious after separating his shoulder last December in Regina. "I was in on a two-on-one and I shot the puck and the d-man slid and I tripped over him and went full speed into the boards - sideways. When I got up, I knew something was wrong and I had a feeling it was separated." The road to recovery was a long one for Comrie, who separated it again - in practice. "It was difficult coming back and trying to play and not be afraid of contact. It is always in the back of your mind that if you take a weird hit, something will go wrong again." Having undergone surgery after playing in just 35 games as a rookie, Comrie wants to stay healthy this season. "Being an older player, I want to be a leader on the team and play my game and make an impact. I think if I do that, hopefully I will stick with the team." Comrie will start the season in the AJHL. He has been loaned to the Spruce Grove Saints.
Wet behind ears: The future is bright for 15 year-old Andrew Cristall. The pride of Burnaby was the Rockets 1st round pick, 8th overall, in the most recent WHL bantam draft. "I was so excited. It is such a great organization. I am stoked to be a part of it". How did draft day unfold back on April 22nd? "We woke up pretty early. We put the draft on our TV in the living room. We got to the 8th pick and it was Kelowna and I was hoping I was going to get picked. When it happened we were jumping up and down and starting hugging each other. It was a pretty exciting moment. It was pretty cool." Cristall is a special player in his own right, but his selection takes on added significance. He was long time director of player personnel Lorne Frey's final first round pick in the scouts illustrious career. "I have a really high hockey IQ. I think my hands and vision are pretty good as well. I am a really competitive player and I like to win, so I am going to do whatever it takes." The hope is Cristall will develop into the team's leading scorer in his 18 or 19 year-old seasons. One can only hope he can be half the player of 'Burnaby Joe' - NHL hockey hall of famer Joe Sakic.
Loaded with alumni: Up until last season, the Kelowna Rockets never had three former players behind the bench - as coaches - at the exact same time. Kris Mallette is the head coach. Vernon Fiddler is his assistant and Adam Brown is the goaltending coach. Brown played 4 seasons after the Rockets plucked him off waivers from the Kitchener Rangers. "I didn't know where Kelowna was. I got my flight. I came up here. Once I saw the city and saw the team and the way it was run, I said there is no way I am going anywhere else." Brown is the son of Vancouver Canucks assistant coach Newell Brown. "Through the course of my career, he made a point of not getting in the way. Not getting in the way, but stepping in and giving me that extra advantage. He wanted me to make my own path." Brown was also a member of the 2009 WHL championship team. "There was one practice where Jamie Benn, Ian Duval and I think Colin Long was on that line and it wasn't even fair. It was a 3 on 2 drill, a 2 on 1 drill and I think they scored almost ever time at both ends." Brown still holds two Rockets records - games played in a career by a goaltender and saves made.
Huge shoes to fill: When Lorne Frey stepped down as the teams director of player personnel, who was going to assume the role? Long time scout Terry McFaul took over from one of the best. "He (Frey) is more right than he has been wrong. He never gives up on anybody". McFaul too has a long history with the organization, so taking over seemed like a no-brainer. "Being with the Rockets and the Hamilton family, they are second to none. You get treated so well. There is not a bad thing you can say about them." So what type of player catches the eye of McFaul? "If you are a good skater with good vision and good skills. You can teach people to play but you can't teach them to have good skill. You can't teach them to be outstanding skaters. You also want them to be good people". Lorne Frey doesn't totally ride off into the sunset. He assumes the role of senior adviser, a position that will allow him to spend more time with family back in Saskatchewan.
Higher Mathematics: With the new WHL season comprised of no more than 50 games, it will be interesting to see how the season unfolds as teams play within their respective division. The Kelowna Rockets will play games against Kamloops, Victoria, Prince George and Vancouver. Dividing 4 into 50, we could be seeing some teams - 12 times. That would mean 6 games at home and 6 games on the road in some instances, that's if we play a full 50 games. With the pandemic expected to ramp up in January, February and March and the possibility of games being cancelled, maybe we only play 35 games. Would it be too much to play, let's say Kamloops 12 times during the season? Before you answer yes, back in 1996-1997, the two teams met 14 times - 7 at home and 7 on the road. Why did they meet so many times back then? Remember, the league had fewer teams. Vancouver was granted a franchise in 2001 while Victoria was brought into the fold in 2011 when the Chilliwack Bruins re-located there.
Demolition Crew: Liam Kindree was a one man wrecking crew. The 20 year-old spent the summer in Kelowna working in construction and dropping more than 20 pounds in the process. "It is physical labour; I would have to credit some of that to my weight loss as well. It keeps you busy. I am carrying around things. Breaking things. Tiding up the place and working on my vacuuming skills as well." Has anyone lost more man-games due to injury than Kindree? The answer is no. "Physically getting hurt, it hurts. Mentally is probably the hardest part". A broken collarbone, a broken ankle and a broken nose. Thankfully the adversity hasn't broken Kindree's spirit. "I am just hoping the pain I feel when I get injured is the strength I will be able to feel tomorrow". This is Kindree's final season in the WHL and wants to make the most of it. "To get back 100% and put up some good numbers and just be a good teammate for all of the guys in the room. I want to bring my experience to the younger guys and I am looking forward to it." Kindree is one of 5 players vying for three overage spots, which means he will have to beat out the likes of teammate Sean Comrie, Dillon Hamaliuk, Devin Steffler and newly acquired David Kope.
Who has the last laugh? You could hear the chuckles. WHL fans were snickering. When the 2019-2020 season was put to bed, many across the league had a good giggle at the Kelowna Rockets misfortune. The team was forced to give up assets in an effort to ice a solid team as the host of the 2020 Memorial Cup. Sure, first round bantam drafts were paid out for virtually no return as COVID-19 kicked the WHL and the Kia Memorial Cup to the curb. But who is laughing now? How would you like to be a fan of a team who is in the up-cycle of its development? The team that is able to win now. The team that, if you were betting a significant amount of money from your bank account, you would be all-in believing that it had all the elements to win the Ed Chynoweth Cup. Well, things have changed. We may play. We may not. If the regular season goes ahead as planned, will we see the playoffs again or will it dissolve like it did last March? It's scary to ponder. It was easy to say, 'it serves them right' last May, but if your team isn't in a rebuild right now under this world wide pandemic, I'd be squirming a bit. The shoe doesn't feel so good does it when its on the other foot?
Masked Man: A few weeks back I told you about the time I had the privilege of playing goal at a
Radio Resurgence: Will we have fans in the stands when the Western Hockey League season begins January 8th? If not, what is abundantly clear is radio, yes poor old radio, will become a more coveted property than ever before. Often pushed aside in favour of TV, radio will be the message carrier between teams and its fans. That's music to the ears of broadcasters, but it should also resonate with advertisers whose ads will be heard by more hockey fans at the other end of the radio. Our job, as announcers, is to make sure we are able to make the listener feel like they are there even though they are sitting at home or listening to the game in their vehicle.
Changes off the Ice: When the new season starts, health regulations will force several game night personal to change locations from where they are typically situated. As an example, in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, the public address announcer, if sitting in the time keeper's box, has been moved to the press box in an effort to social distance from the penalty box gate attendees. In Kelowna that doesn't mean much of a change, where long time public address announcer Bill Barnes has always been stationed up in the press box. But in Kamloops, Bill O'Donavon, who does a great job, sits right in the time keeper's area with no less than two other men within spitting distance. With social distancing, there is no way 6 feet can be adhered to at Sandman Centre.
Phone calls well made: With players spread out across Western Canada during a delay in the start of the season, I have reached out to most of them, via phone, to see what they have been doing to stay in decent shape during the shutdown. To be honest, it's been neat to be able to touch base with the players individually and find out how they are coping under the 'new normal'. In fact, this is the first time - ever - I have been afforded this luxury prior to the season starting and it's been interesting to see how all of them are doing as they await for the puck to drop in early January.
Truth Hurts: For the record, I didn't watch a second of the NLCS or ALCS. The NBA finals? Same.
Cravings: It is hard to imagine not going over the border this year to places like Portland, Everett, Kent, Kennewick and Spokane. My favourite post game meal has to be at the ShoWare Centre. Ya, in the arena. It's weird. I don't know what she is doing, but the lady provides a wicked post game meal in a small room typically used as the scouts room. I've complimented her several times for what she does. I can only assume her catering business has taken a huge hit with a lack of business with the WHL season pushed back three times, from early October to December 4th and now to January 8th.
Feist foraging for food: Hunting down opponents who are taking liberties on teammates is one of Tyson Feist's greatest assets. But the Kelowna Rockets d-man also used a delay in the start of the WHL season to take advantage of the fall hunting season. With a 60 pound backpack, Feist headed up north, on a five day trip with his dad and brother to hunt Stone Sheep. "The whole process of finding the animal, stalking it and the adrenaline of going after the animal is something I have always enjoyed". Feist, as his name implies, does some of his best work with his gloves off. Could the day come where fighting it isn't allowed in the WHL? Some junior leagues are considering it. "I think it is a big part of the game. It keeps some guys safe if you have some guys running around and you are not allowed to talk to them and let them know that they can't be doing that to your teammates". When it comes to a late season coaching change, Feist says a new voice behind the bench doesn't change his approach. "My attitude isn't going to change going into the season with different coaches. Mally (Kris Mallette) is an awesome coach and I have learned a lot from him. I am going to continue to work hard and he is going to lead the team and it's going to be awesome." Acquired in a trade with the Regina Pats last January, the pride of Dawson Creek is looking for big things in his 19 year-old season.
"I am lucky enough to get the chance to play in it (Memorial Cup) when I was 17. It definitely would have been a great experience being able to be a go-to-guy on the team at the Memorial Cup".
Wedman believes they would have done well.
"I think we could have won that tournament. We were just starting to put the pieces together and get the systems in place that we needed to. Guys were starting to get healthy and we were looking like a scary team towards the end of the year, so we definitely had things to be excited about".
It was a tough way for Wedman to end his major junior career:
"You want that chance to thank the fans for the final time and you want that chance to say goodbye to all your teammates and go out on the terms you want to go out with."
Wedman was named the Rockets most valuable player in 2019-2020, an impress feat considering the 21 year-old dressed in just 35 games after being acquired in a December trade with the Seattle Thunderbirds.
A world wide pandemic wasn't all bad news for Kelowna Rockets forward Trevor Wong.
With no hockey to be played and so much down time, it was chance for the personable 17 year-old to work on his golf game.
Wong would shoot a personal best - 76 - at the Riverway Golf Club in Burnaby.
When it comes to his first love - hockey - it was tough to see the season end the way it did.
""We were going in the right direction towards the end of the season, I thought. Our older guys were awesome. It sucks because it is every CHL guys dream to play in the Memorial Cup. I felt especially bad for 'Topper' (Kyle Topping). He was injured the majority of the year, yet he had a great comeback, so it really sucks to see."
The first round bantam pick in 2018 dressed in 58 games, scoring 6 times and collecting 14 points.
"Coming into the league as a rookie, you are not expecting to play first line minutes or power play-one or anything like that, but you aspire to be there and you try to work your way up as the season goes along. You have to look up to the guys who do play those minutes and who are getting out there in the final minutes of the game. Working hard in practice is a huge thing and you will eventually get there".
What does he miss most in early October?
"I am really, really missing the guys in the room and really missing Kelowna. I just want to get back there and start playing again and being on the ice with the guys. I think, as a team, we have a bright future ahead of us."
Heading into his sophomore season, Wong is eyeing next June's NHL draft and hopefully a chance to play for a Memorial Cup when he is 19 when the WHL hosts the tournament in 2023.
Acquired in April in a trade with the Edmonton Oil Kings, David Kope is itching to join his new team.
The Kelowna Rockets 20 year-old forward is coming off a career season with 37 points in 59 games.
"I was fairly happy (team and personal success) with the season being short and I missed a couple of games. I am hopeful to improving on my goals and points this year. I was on a pretty good team and was put into some pretty good opportunities, but I hope to build on that this year."
When training camp starts in mid-November, Kope will be one of five overage players battling for only three spots.
"For sure, time goes by fast. Honestly, it feels like yesterday I got drafted to the WHL. I am excited to be a 20 year-old and be a leader this year and hopefully we can have a good year."
While Kope told me he knows very few of his new teammates, he grew up playing hockey in Edmonton with defenceman Sean Comrie.
Kelowna Rockets forward Jake Poole handed in his hockey stick for a baseball glove when the season was cancelled due to COVID-19.
While celebrating his 18th birthday in the height of the pandemic, he joined a senior baseball team in Elkhorn, Manitoba where was a pitcher and shortstop.
Coming off his rookie season in the WHL, things didn't come easy.
"The speed and skill of everyone. The goalies are so much better than midget hockey too. I didn't find I could score like I did in midget. There are some things you can't do in the WHL, different moves and stuff, so that took me a while to get used too."
Scoring 4 goals in 59 games has Poole working on all aspects of his game.
"I think skating and being quicker to loose pucks, 50/50 pucks and being more efficient with my stride and not tiring out when guys are taking four strides and I am taking 10."
Poole knows he has discrepancies and is using assistant coach Vernon Fiddler as a valuable resource.
"I like playing in the corners and protecting pucks. Vern has showed me clips of how to protect pucks. Getting closer to the end of the year I was getting a lot better at it, holding pucks down low. That really improved quite a bit", Poole added.
Poole is getting set for a new season by skating 4 times a week in Brandon, which is a 90 minute drive down the road.
A new custom set of golf clubs was on Kaedan Korczak's radar when the season was cut short due to COVID-19.
"I had some old ones that I got when I was in middle school or high school, so they were pretty old. I decided I wanted a new pair, so I got suited up with those and I have probably gone one hundred rounds I'd say".
If you play that many times, the scores card has to look a whole lot better?
"I would say I am average. I am not excellent but I am not terrible. When I had my old clubs I would slice pretty hard so, now that I have my new ones I can hit it pretty straight".
Born in Yorkton Saskatchewan, Korczak has spent the last four summers in Calgary, where he took part in June's Team Canada virtual training camp.
Of course the goal this year is to play for his country at the World Junior Hockey Championships at Christmas.
"Obviously last year I wanted to make the team. It is a 19 year-old tournament and hopefully I can crack it this year," Korczak added.
Calling them his second mom and dad, Korczak and his younger brother Ryder have a good thing going in Calgary --- a set of uncles and aunts feed the two as they skate, train and play golf.
Here's an interesting fact. The 19 year-old hasn't missed a single game, over his WHL career, with an injury. 'Korzy' has 200 healthy games under his belt.
|Luke Schenn holding the Stanley Cup|
What are you talk'n about Willis? It was likely my 'Welcome to the WHL' moment. December 10, 1995. My first season of calling games on the radio with the Swift Current Broncos. We were in Lethbridge to face the Hurricanes that night. This was no routine game prior to the Christmas break though. That season the team was guided by Todd McLellan. Todd is now the head coach of the NHL's LA Kings. He built a team with an abundance of skill that season, but two players were able to answer the bell if things got physical. A smallish player named Tyler Willis was as scrappy as they could come and Derek Arbez was the team leader with 261 penalty minutes that season. Late in a game against the Hurricanes, things turned nasty. Tyler Willis precipitated it all by getting into a fight that started with one player and then evolved into a fight with another unsuspecting Hurricane. With Willis' jersey exploding off his upper body, which was by design back then, he started punching anyone wearing white-red and blue colours in an effort to turn them black and blue. When I saw a player coming off the Hurricanes bench and then another followed by players from the Broncos bench, I knew it was 'fight night'. In my first season calling play-by-play, it was difficult enough just calling the action. Calling a fight was significantly harder. Calling a bench clearing brawl was nearly impossible for a first year broadcaster as I attempt to describe the mayhem in front of me. I couldn't prepare for it. I couldn't rehearse. My objective was to keep my cool, keep the emotions in check while attempting to describe what I was seeing, in a succinct manner, to those listening back home. I remember numerous times looking down at my lineup sheet wondering who was fighting who. As soon as I figured that out, a third man came flying in and I would struggle identifying who he was. I didn't know where to look. Too my far right, in front of the Hurricanes bench, players were whaling on each other. Then out of the corner of my eye, to my left, two more were squaring off. As Bob Cole is known to exclaim, "Everything is happening". The goalies were scrapping. Broncos back-up Aaron McDonald was even seen grabbing a player before he got bowled over by another Hurricane coming to a teammate’s aid. It is the only brawl I have called play-by-play for over 25 years in the WHL. I've called line brawls, but that isn't even in the same stratosphere of what went down that night. Even the coaches were on the ice trying to calm down the players while breaking up fights. In speaking to Tyler Willis about it last week, he remembers the game quite fondly. He told me he was suspended three games for his actions that night. He also said he came onto the ice multiple times after being sent to the dressing room. I asked him if he was ever scared when things got out of control. His answer? "Nah". Here is the grainy video evidence of what went down that night. I am glad we don't see that type of mayhem anymore. Eventful? Without a doubt.
Beach-Beached: Kyle Beach isn't sure he will play overseas this fall. The Kelowna minor hockey product is waiting for a new contract after spending the last 8 seasons in Europe. Now 30, Beach was a first round WHL bantam pick of the Everett Silvertips and was selected in the opening round, 11th overall, in the 2008 entry draft by the Chicago Blackhawks. Beach never played a game in the National Hockey League. I asked him why he was unable to attain that dream. "I've spend a lot of time thinking about it. I think a lot of it was timing. I got drafted in 2008. In 2010, my last year of junior, my 19 year-old year, they (Chicago) won the Stanley Cup. They won two years later. Then they obviously won a third one. They had a real good team. They had been building for multiple years before that. I was drafted by Dale Tallon. He got fired shortly after I was drafted. The coach at the time I was drafted was Denis Savard and I think he was let go six games into the season in my 18 year-old year. That was as close as I got. I was one of the last cuts (18 year-old year) and was sent back to junior. Within two weeks of being sent back to the WHL there was a big shakeup there. At any age, when you get new management and coaches they want it to be there team. Stan Bowman came in and he wanted it to be his team. I think it was partly timing and partly maturity. It took me a bit to find my way and for me to realize it wasn't going to happen overnight. I don't want to blame other people than myself. It was the first time in my hockey career that I was told I wasn't good enough and it wears on you." Beach would play three seasons with the Tips between 2006 and 2009. He was named the WHL Rookie of the Year with 29 goals (2006-2007) before being dealt to the Lethbridge Hurricanes. After just 24 games there, he was sent to the Spokane Chiefs where he would put up 52 goals in his 19 year-old season.
Best move I ever made: The best move I ever made was marrying my wife Diana in 1995. That was 25 years ago people!! The second best? I received my 20th anniversary plaque in the mail from Bell Media the other day. It officially marks 20 years in Kelowna, working in the same building that was owned by Telemedia, Standard Radio, Astral Media and now Bell Media. While ownership has changed hands over the years since I walked through the station doors in the fall of 2000, like a good warm coat, it has felt like a comfortable-safe place to work. It was the best decision in my professional radio career to walk into the radio station, unannounced, in the summer of 2000 before meeting directly with then general manager Bill Mann. The cold-call worked, or Mann must have loved the guts/nerve I showed by walking through the doors that day without even a phone call. Shortly after, I was interviewed by then news director Betty Selin and she hired me a day later. If I can say one thing about my time in Kelowna, management over the years has allowed me to do my thing. Having that creative freedom is something I don't take for granted. Coming to Kelowna has allowed me to cover a hockey team that is dripping in success. Five trips to the Memorial Cup, several WHL championships and players that have gone on to success in the NHL or have chosen the WHL Education Program and have obtained a degree from a Canadian university - essentially for free. I love everything about the city. I marvel at Kelowna. It hasn't gotten old on me. My kids were born here. My wife has a great job here. Both my parents, who were born and raised on the prairies, are buried here. Kelowna is home and will be for a long time. If my career has me here permanently, I am good with that. I have hit the jackpot of calling junior hockey games in the best place in Canada.
Whistle Blower: Kelowna's Steve Papp isn't sitting idly by even though the WHL doesn't anticipate starting for another two months. The veteran official is getting his reps in the BC Hockey League. Papp hasn't spent time as an official in that league in close to 8 years, but you go to where the work is and in Papp's case, you try to give back. The personable official has been coaching and supervising others who want to eventual call games at the major junior level.
Stadel ready to starter up: Former Kelowna Rockets defenceman/forward Riley Stadel is overseas. In speaking to the 24 year-old, this will mark his fourth season in Europe. Now playing in Erste Liga, Stadel is with Ute Budapest in Hungry. Stadel flew into the country back on August 4th and plans to be there until flying back to North America in mid-April. The plan is to play a full regular season schedule with no fans, at least to start. Stadel is teammates with former Spokane Chief Mike Aviani. While never taking advantage of the WHL Education Program, look what the 3rd round pick of the Kelowna Rockets in the 2011 bantam draft has been able to experience. Playing junior hockey has opened doors for Stadel to play in Scotland, England, Finland and Poland. To experience those spots while playing hockey has to be so rewarding.
Ontario cases escalate: With over 700 new cases of COVID-19 in Ontario on Monday, that is bad news for the start of the OHL regular season on December 4th. Will that impact us here in the WHL, considering we want to start at that exact date? Would we want to open up our season while the OHL remains idle? I know the QMJHL is starting Friday with regular season games, but I just don't see the WHL moving ahead and leaving its OHL partner behind. It feels like the 'Dub' and the 'O' work in concert with one another while the 'Q' is more of a trail blazer and are willing to go on there own.
Competitive juices flow: I am not sure they make them anymore like Tyson Baillie. I always thought his love for the game was off the charts. I recall many times on the bus, overhearing his voice talking about NHL players with accuracy. He knew which player was with which team. We would have the bus satellite dish pumping in NHL highlites on the video monitors and Baillie was as intentive as anyone. Baillie told me this week about retiring, ''Not the ending I was hoping for, but looking back at the teams I was apart of, and what we were able to accomplish, it is a pretty special career." Indeed it was. Baillie, who has been playing year-round hockey since he was 8, will finish his degree at the University of Alberta and will help coach the midget team in Fort Saskatchewan. If you never watched him play, you missed one of all-time greats that was as happy when his teammates scored as when he found the back of the net himself.
Old Fart: My good buddy Marlon Martens celebrated his 46th birthday this week. The voice of the Victoria Royals is one of the good guys in the league. If you had all of the WHL broadcasters in the same room, heaven forbid as you couldn't get a word in edgewise, Martens would be one of the quieter ones. Not one to rock the boat, he is a faithful follower of the team he calls games for and frankly, from my perspective, a faithful friend. He may also have the best beard in the league. No. Wait a minute. He does.
Crappy COVID: It's been great working in the AM 1150 newsroom the last seven months. I've been reading and reporting news during my time away from hockey. To be honest, it has been fun. This is how I started, sort of in broadcasting. At CKSW in Swift Current, I was reading news for several years before eventually becoming the play-by-play voice of the Broncos in 1995. It's like riding a bike. Just don't get me to pronounce the name of the director general of the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
He must have known: Lorne Frey had the uncanny ability to see into the future. Frey was the Kelowna Rockets director of player personnel until he retired in April after 30 years with the organization. Knowing 'Lorney', he probably saw COVID-19 coming from a mile away. With the season being delayed until December 4th and possibly cancelled outright in 2020-2021, Frey picked the perfect time to say goodbye. I wonder if he plays the lottery? Picking the winning numbers would be a breeze.
Overseas Action: I checked in with Tyler Spurgeon this week. The former Kelowna Rockets captain is back overseas in Germany. He landed in Munich on August 27th. He told me via text message "As Canada is not a high risk nation, I did not need to quarantine or isolate when I arrived. As all the players and coaches have negative results, we are currently just doing optional skates". Spurgeon tells me the pro league he plays in will stay firm on 52 regular season games. With a late start, they will just play later into the spring.
Questions Unanswered: Like the WHL, the American Hockey League has tentatively scheduled December 4th as its start of the 2020-2021 season. What does that mean for Kyle Topping? The 21 year-old former Kelowna Rockets forward signed an AHL deal with with the San Jose Barracuda, an affiliate of the San Jose Sharks. Like many in his shoes, will and can the AHL play without fans? The waiting game continues with so many questions left unanswered.
The Threat: The old Medicine Hat Arena. The home of the Tigers. To think, construction began on that building way back in 1968. That was 52 years ago. It's easy for me to figure that out considering I was born that year. That arena, while no longer the home of a WHL franchise after moving into the Canalta Center in 2015, brings back a long list of memories. One that stands out was my final year with the Swift Current Broncos in 2000. Still wet behind the ears as a broadcaster and calling games on the road by myself, I was high above the ice surface one night in February looking down as the action unfolded between the two arch rivals. During a stoppage in play, while killing time by giving out one of my well researched antidotes (tongue in cheek) to those listening back at home, likely on something as irrelevant as Duncan Milroy's skating style, I could hear the crowd in the Arena beginning to stir in their seats. I could faintly hear the public address announcer in the building make an announcement over the loud speaker system, but didn't think anything of it. To my surprise, people in their seats began to rise to their feet and began quickly exiting the building. I thought to myself, 'man the fans in Medicine Hat are poor sports. It's only 3-1 Broncos. There was lots of time left on the clock'! With what could only be considered a loooooooooong stoppage in play, I began feverishly looking for other things to talk about as I waited for the linesman to drop the puck for another face-off. Next thing I knew, I heard an aggressive knock on the door of the broadcast booth behind me. Leaning back, with my headset still attached to my broadcast board, I sheepishly opened it up a crack, while still attempting to talk to the radio listeners back home. On the other side of the door was Tigers long time marketing director Dave Andjelic with a concerned look on his face. He whispered, "Umm...Regan...you have to get out. There has been a bomb threat!!" Stunned at what I just heard, I looked back onto the ice to see both teams were gone. They too were rushed to their respective dressing rooms in an effort to get them out of the building as quickly as possible. The stands were empty. In a state of panic, my voice likely going up three octaves, I quickly expressed to those listening that someone has called in a bomb threat and the game had been postponed. I quickly signed off, gathered my belongings and headed towards the bus. After sitting on the Broncos bus in the parking lot for some time, it was decided the remaining time left in the game would be played at a later date. To say it was a memorable night at the Medicine Hat Arena would be an understatement.
Fight Night: I won't do it now, but will share the story of the first full out brawl I witnessed and called play-by-play for on this blog in future postings.
Old School: Minor hockey will look a whole lot different this winter. Fewer players on the ice. More 4 on 4 or 3 on 3. No one is sitting in the penalty box after taking an infraction. Not this winter. Instead, a penalty shot will be awarded. Many minor hockey players will be dressing at home, like I used to do when I first played minor hockey in Saskatchewan. You geared up with the help of mom and dad and only put on your skates at the arena. In my day, the first minor hockey I played was outdoors. A small warm-up shack was the only refuge from the bitter prairie cold. I hate to show my age, but the photo to the right is the first goalie mask I ever wore. That sucker wasn't CSA approved!! The paint job is inspired by one of Grant Fuhr's first masks that he donned at the NHL level, or at least that was the weak attempt at mimicking it. Give me a break though, I was only 10 when I attempted that creation with the paint kit from my Dukes of Hazard 'General Lee' model set.
Who to cheer for? That's a tough one. Blake Comeau is probably the best story. Now 34, Comeau has never been an elite player at the NHL level. What's impressive is the Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan resident has played 852 regular season games with six different teams. Luke Schenn was left for dead basically two years ago with the fear that his time in the NHL was over when he was playing in the American Hockey League. Schenn, who is 30, understands that his window of winning is closing quickly as a seventh d-man on the Lightning blue-line. One thing Comeau, Schenn and Benn have in common is they also captured gold for Canada at the world juniors. Comeau in 2006. Schenn in 2008 and Benn in 2009.Oh, all three are also on the Rockets 'Wall of Recognition' down by the dressing room.
Fiddler can't be on the fence. Isn't the answer obvious? The Dallas Stars. The Kelowna Rockets assistant coach, who just completed his first season behind a WHL bench, 'Fids' played five seasons in 'Big D' between 2011 and 2016. Fiddler is very familiar with many of the players on the Stars current roster. As early as two years ago, he was an organizational coach with the Stars, where he assisted with skills and development with Dallas and their AHL affiliate, the Texas Stars.
Mohr wants More: Ex-Kelowna Rockets forward Kobe Mohr is among several players involved in class action lawsuit against the NHL/AHL/ECHL/WHL/OHL/QMJHL. It's an 825 million dollar suit alleging 'a conspiracy among the world's top professional and amateur hockey leagues to exploit dreams - chasing teenage player with one-sided contracts containing abusive restrictions on their young careers. Maybe from now on the WHL will have bold print in their 'standard' player contract stipulating that no legal action will be taken against them if the hockey career of the player doesn't materialize the way he/his family/agent had envisioned. Tough wording indeed for the player and his parents to absorb, but disgruntled teenagers who didn't make it are coming out of the woodwork and looking for a payday is becoming common place. Mohr played 9 games with the Kelowna Rockets last season after being acquired off waivers. He was later dealt to the Moose Jaw Warriors in November in a multi-player deal for 20 year-old Jaden Joseph.
Dialing long distance with Dilly: A wonderful conversation this week with Philadelphia Flyers goaltending coach Kim Dillabaugh. It feels like I haven't talked to Dilly in years. Truth is...that's the case. Dillabaugh was the Kelowna Rockets goaltending coach for years before eventually being hired full time by the LA Kings in 2014. He worked with Jonathon Quick and then moved to the Flyers where he is the head goalie coach guiding the likes of up-and-comer Carter Hart. I could talk to Dilly for hours about goaltending. We had a lengthy discussion that will be featured next month on the re-start of 'The Kelowna Rockets This Week'. The show can be heard Saturday's at 6:00 PM on AM 1150. I reached Dillabaugh at his home in New Jersey where he, his wife Bonnie and young daughter and son are keeping safe.
Cookie didn't crumble: I had to ask Dillabaugh about one goaltender he loved to work with during his time with the Kelowna Rockets; Jordon Cooke. "He is one of the most competitive individuals I have had to work with. He is so driven to be the best. I didn't want Jordon Cooke to be a Kelly Guard or Derek Yeomans, I wanted Jordon Cooke to be Jordon Cooke. Everyone is unique. I bring that forth today. I worked with Jonathon Quick and Martin Jones. I don't want Carter Hart, now, to look and play like those guys. Everyone is an individual."
Shame game: I don't like COVID-19. We all don't like COVID-19. What I don't like about it is the public shaming that goes along with a positive test. If you are exposed and the test comes back positive, there is a certain stigma or shame or guilt attached to it. If I was sick, had symptoms and tested positive, would I want that information becoming public? Let's say I am a WHL head coach and have COVID-19. Can you imagine the headline if that person tested positive and it got out to the media? "First positive test of COVID for CHL coach". Who wants to be attached with that distinction? That's why privacy, specifically if one is in the public eye is paramount.
Ice, Ice Baby: When does the ice go in at Prospera Place? For now, all is quiet.
Ice Whisperer: His name is Wayne Pansegrau. We in Kelowna know who he is, but for those that don't, he is arguably one of the best ice makers in North America. Pansegrau is known for his work at Prospera Place, but now owns a company called - Top Shelf Arena Services. It has allowed him to work at no less than 20 NHL outdoor games. I spoke to him this week and asked about which one was his favourite. "The first is the most memorable. It was the one in Ann Arbor Michigan in 2014 with over 105 thousand fans there. That will always be my favourite. That one was picturesque. We had a beautiful snowfall on game day, which was heavy to start but during the game it was lite and added a nice effect for the game."
Masks a mainstay: I saw this week that the Kelowna Rockets souvenir store has re-opened to the general public. 'In The Crease' is a shoppers delight for any fan of the red, black, teal and white. I wonder when Kelowna Rockets logoed face masks will be available? If they are, I am buying one. I see several teams have already purchased some, including the Calgary Hitmen. The Everett Silvertips where taking orders for them back in May.
Doing the Domink Hasek: Was reminiscing with a buddy last week about Marc Habscheid. It took me back to a memory of when the Kelowna Rockets were on a prairie road trip. The year was 2001-2002. During an off day, 'Habby' and the entire team drove out to Stewart Valley, Saskatchewan (about a 20 minute drive north of Swift Current) for a skate on the small communities antiquated ice surface. It was also Travis Moen's hometown. I played minor hockey in that arena as a kid. It was classic. All wood. No Zamboni and a long stairway that led to the dress rooms. Kids, on skates, would often tumble down the stairwell before going on the ice. Oh, the arena staff - all volunteers - offered the best cheese burgers around, but that's a completely different story. Habscheid was all about team building. On this road trip, he allowed me to bring my goalie gear on the bus so I could suit up with the team for practice. Yep, even the broadcaster was designated as 'a part of the team' back then. So, there I was between the pipes taking wrist and slap shots off my head, arms and chest from the likes of Kiel McLeod and Bart Rushmer. I am not sure that would be allowed today with liability issues, but Habscheid was all about inclusivity. (Inclusivity: the practice or policy of including people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalized.) I remember the practice ending with a scrimmage with everyone out on the ice, including the coaches. It was a mad scramble, but man was it fun. Habscheid was cherry picking at the blue-line and received a pass and went in alone with me in goal. I couldn't let the coach score could I? Habscheid, who still possessed slick hands, made a nice move to the backhand. My only recourse was to do my best Dominik Hasek imitation by doing a cart wheel in the crease to keep it out. If memory serves me correct, the puck went off the goal post and into the far corner. Habscheid's story many differ, but I am not changing the outcome. Marc Habscheid is credited with changing the culture of the franchise during his time in Kelowna. I would suggest this is another reason why, by allowing the radio guy to be included.
Long time, no talk: Hey kids. A long time between personal entries on my space on the
Managing COVID stress: We all manage stress in different ways. Some eat more. Others look to alcohol to cope. I've always found exercise to be my best friend. During the height of COVID, I was forced to use my garage as a way of blowing off steam. While I prefer the gym, I made the transition smoother than I thought with the use of an exercise band, which I swear I would never use. With no free weights, it's the only space saving option and honestly I've really enjoyed it. With a treadmill already in my house, I am able to get a good sweat going and I've enlisted winter tires and a fence bar to mimic the bench press. Will I eventually go back to the gym? Sure, but once we get a better grasp on the number of cases locally and the medical community gets a better handle on what the virus can and can not do. For me, being in an enclosed area with other gym enthusiasts who are breathing hard isn't safe enough. I will stick with my home gym in a garage that features the smell of my teenage boy's dirt bikes.
Lost picks but ability to recoup assets: In reflecting back on the 2020 Memorial Cup being cancelled in May, my heart goes out to the organizers that put their heart and soul into making the event a huge success. Kelowna is spectacular at any time and it would have showed off how sexy she is by hosting the prestigious event. I also feel for the Rockets organization that had to mortgage the future to build a contending host team. A lot of first round bantam draft picks were paid to acquire Matthew Wedman, Connor McDonald and Dillon Hamaliuk, in a trade in May, 2019 with Seattle that also included Jake Lee and Cole Schwebius. In the future, that is no first round pick in 2021, 2022 and 2023. That said, will the team deal off an asset in the near future to recoup one of those 1st round picks? My feeling is they will.
Kelowna's dream isn't over: With the Memorial Cup in Kelowna now a distant memory, will 'we' get it back in 2023 when the WHL hosts again? My belief is it will happen, with hard charging Kamloops and likely Victoria throwing their hat into the bidding ring. Remember, Victoria pulled out of the bidding for the 2020 tournament and Kamloops still hasn't gotten over why they weren't chosen over Kelowna. Its a deep wound that won't heal.
Let's not forget: Kelowna was awarded the 2020 Memorial Cup in October of 2018. The season prior, the Rockets had 43 wins. Kamloops had 30 victories and 28 fewer points. While Kamloops wants to lean on the fact they were built for a better team than Kelowna come 2020, those voting likely looked at recent success where, clearly at the time, the Rockets had a better team statistically. Were the Blazers better than the Rockets going into the 2020 tournament? 22 points better.
Dube doesn't look much different: Everyone is going gaga over Dillon Dube's beard. Sure its mightily impressive, but heck, he had it going on when he was 16. The photo on the right is proof from his time with the Kelowna Rockets in the 2015 Memorial Cup in Quebec City. Dube is a hairy freak!!!
Can we squeeze in 68 in 5 months? So we are playing again in December are we? December 4th to be exact. League governors want to play a full 68 game schedule, but that will be tough to accomplish with the loss of two months of the schedule that typically starts in late September. If you look at the Rockets 2019-2020 season, the team played 25 games from September 21st to the end of November. You can shorten the Christmas break by a few days, but it will be awfully hard to squeeze in those games over such a small window. Extending the regular season is likely in the cards, meaning playoffs won't start until late April, with the format looking significantly different with the possibility of shorter opening round playoff series. I know that brains much smarter than mine have it all figured it, but it is fun to speculate on what they possibly will do.
No hockey in the fall? It's been 25 years since I've entered the turning of the calendar to September with no hockey on the horizon. It was 1994, a year prior to being granted the opportunity to be the radio voice of the Swift Current Broncos where I was afforded that luxury. In late August, my schedule has always included rookie camp and the start of pre-season in early September. That won't be the case this year. The adjustment to a 'new normal' will be a strange one. I can only imagine how mind boggling it will be for the players and coaches.
Right decision: I applaud the WHL higher-ups for backing the season off until early December. When it was originally announced that early October would be the start of the regular season, I just couldn't see it happening. This COVID-thing has turned our lives upside down and still too many questions remain with the closure of the Canada-US border until late September.
Wash your hands: If and when we re-start, players are going to have to go through a course known as HYGIENE 101. Trust me, I am a father of 17 year-old twin boys. They are a mess. They are the last to wash there hands. They are the first to openly cough rather than doing it in their sleeve. I have been traveling on junior buses for 25 years and players are loose in their hygiene practices. An open bag of chips where hands are dipping in and out of the bag will have to be off limits. Sharing homemade cookies made by a billet or mom will be a no-no. These players will need to be reminded time and time again to wash hands, don't share food and essentially be a germaphobe, or mimic one, until a vaccine is found.
No horse in the race: With the NHL playoffs in full swing, I too was watching with interest on how things would unfold. So far, the play on the ice has been terrific considering the long layoff and the radio announcers, or any announcer that was forced to call games on a monitor in a radio studio, as opposed to being at the area, deserve much credit. With no team to cheer for with Edmonton going down in a five game series to Chicago, my focus is on supporting all the Canadian teams that remain live. That means the Canucks, Flames and Canadiens get my full support now that the Oilers, Jets and Leafs have been turfed from the bubble.
|Matthew Wedman - Shoot the Breeze Photography|