Thursday, September 20, 2018

Things that make me go hmm....

  • It only seems fitting that the Kelowna Rockets open the season against the Kamloops Blazers in a battle of BC Division rivals. The two organizations will fight it out on the ice this weekend before attempting to out duel one another in the boardroom in an effort to win the bid to host the 2020 Mastercard Memorial Cup. The Rockets haven't hosted since 2004. The Blazers haven't since 1995. It is been a long time for both franchises. Heck, Lethbridge, the third competing bid has never hosted. But will the Memorial Cup be again hosted by an Eastern Conference team after similar stops in Saskatoon, Red Deer and Regina? My hope is one of Kelowna or Kamloops wins the bid. Selfishly, I'd love see Kelowna host it again. Wouldn't you?  
  • When I first heard that Kamloops was bidding for the 2020 Memorial Cup, I thought they were a shoe-in to host the 10 day tournament. If they were granted the games, it would mark 25 years since they last hosted and won major junior hockey's ultimate prize. Do the Blazers have a leg up on the other two bids with that silver anniversary looming large? Pump the brakes for a second. If you haven't been paying attention, the Kelowna Rockets will be celebrating 25 seasons in Kelowna in 2019-2020. The team re-located from Tacoma to the Okanagan for the start of the 1995-96 season. Next season is an extremely special anniversary for this team. Wouldn't hosting the Memorial Cup be a tremendous way to celebrate?
  • One more thought about the Memorial Cup bids. If Kamloops wanted to outbid the other two on the revenue generated from the tournament, they could do it in a heartbeat. Let's remember the majority owner of the team is Tom Gaglardi. Gaglardi has deep pockets (family net worth is pegged at 3.92 billion) and could easily throw in a couple of million bucks if he really wanted too. How could that not persuade the other WHL governors that the event, if hosted in Kamloops, would indeed turn not just a profit, but a significant one that would be shared with the other 21 teams. Will he do it? That is uncertain, but when you own the Dallas Stars, run the Moxie Restaurant empire among other things, it is hard to ignore when significant cash is thrown on the table. 
  • Again I am biased here, but I see Kelowna being the right choice for one reason and one reason only. Bruce Hamilton. A foot soldier for years in the Western Hockey League as Chairman of the Board, Hamilton has stood up and represented the league for years. My understanding is his colleagues vote him in as chairman, this is not a power hungry position that he thirst for. Like Ed Chynoweth before him, Hamilton has helped make tough decisions over the years in a quest to build the league into what we see today. Would it not be a form of payback, or a thank you if the governors put a check mark by Kelowna's bid on October 3rd? And let's be honest, we are all getting older, including Hamilton, who turned 61 in June. This will be Bruce's final time EVER in hosting the Memorial Cup as a league owner. It won't come back to Kelowna in his lifetime. It's the truth. So when you see a faithful owner, who has looked after the affairs of the WHL for so many years, is the Kelowna Rockets bid not the obvious choice in 2020?  
  • I am very intrigued to see what type of season 20 year-old Ryan Bowen has in 2018-2019.  Never a producer of points at the WHL level, I have talked to many hockey people about him and everyone says, "He can skate". Many observers say there must be more there. My hope is Bowen will show his true colours this season. I've seen 20 year-old castoffs from other teams flourish here. Brady Leavold, Mark Guggenberger, Kelly Guard, Dylan McKinley, Cody Fowlie and Geordie Wudrick to name a few. Marek Tvrdon....not so much. I am intrigued to see what Ryan Bowen brings to the table. 
  • What can we expect from Ethan Ernst this season? At 16, he will take his lumps. The WHL is a hard league. You are playing against older competition and its a significantly upgrade from what he witnessed in midget. It will be up to the coaches to make sure Ernst finds the rest he needs so when he is injected into the line-up, he can succeed and has the energy to compete. Sometimes being a healthy scratch is an ok move. The player should look at it that way too. While he must dress for a minimum of 40 games (WHL requirements) as a 16 year-old, the grind of the season takes its toll and off ice rest is crucial.  
  • Again, the goaltending situation in Kelowna is more than sufficient to compete this season. I am not saying that Roman Basran and James Porter Junior won't have nights that will be forgettable, but I'd go to war with that duo. For the first time in forever, it appears the goaltending situation is not a question mark with an 18 and 17 year-old providing the last line of defense. Knowing that those two can return next season and no changes need to be made at that crucial position is comforting.
  • Can Nolan Foote score 30 goals? If healthy, and a year older, while playing on last year's team, I'd say without a shadow of a doubt he can hit that mark. I am wondering if the supporting cast around him with this year's roster will give him the best chance to achieve that milestone? Foote needs to find a passer, but who has the ability to get the puck on Foote's blade? Liam Kindree? Kyle Crosbie? Kyle Topping is a shooter not a passer. It will be interesting to watch to see who the coaches put with the draft eligible prospect. 
  • I had an interesting conversation the other day with a hockey dad who works for an NHL team. I asked why he decided that the WHL was the right place for his son, who will cut his teeth this season at the major junior level at 16. The thought process was his son was physically mature enough to handle the rigors of the WHL. Looking into the crystal ball, the hope is the 16 year-old, in four years' time, will be able to compete for a spot on an NHL roster when he is 20. That is a four year window of development. This player, now 16, can play in the WHL, against elite competition in his 16, 17, 18 and 19 year-old seasons. Plus, this 16 year-old can play a prominent role on his team right now, not when he has two years of junior eligibility left when he is 18 or 19. I won't reveal who this hockey dad is right now, but if you listen to 'The Kelowna Rockets This Week' (Saturday's from 6 pm until 6:30 pm on AM 1150) you will figure it out awfully quick.    
  • I have been so impressed with my conversations with parents I've chosen to interview about their sons experience in the game of hockey. Last week I called Shaun Gardiner, the father of Erik Gardiner. Shaun was so well spoken and explained in great detail about how he and his family dealt with the Humboldt Broncos bus crash. I also called Darby Melville, the mother of forward Liam Kindree. She explains with great excitement in her voice when recalling WHL bantam draft day and how thrilled the family was that Liam was chosen by the Rockets in the fourth round. It makes for terrific radio. We will feature those interviews this season. 
  • The Rockets raise another BC Division banner high to the rafters Saturday night. It will be the teams 19th banner in its 23 seasons in Kelowna. 
  • Colour analyst Gord McGarva will join me in Kamloops for Friday's opening game. We are on the air on AM 1150 at 6:30 pm with the puck drop a touch after 7:05 pm Pacific Standard time.   

Monday, September 17, 2018

Rockets preparing for season opener

Shoot the Breeze Photography

Game Day Preview:
The Kelowna Rockets face the Kamloops Blazers to open the 2018-2019 Western Hockey League regular season. This is the 7th straight season the Rockets have met the Blazers in the opening game. The Rockets are 4-1-1-0 in those six previous meetings. The last time the Rockets opened against another opponent was in 2011-2012 when they visited the Everett Silvertips to begin what was then a 72 game schedule. This season we play 68 games falling in line with the OHL and the QMJHL. These two teams face each other at Prospera Place tomorrow night before meeting again December 28th and 29th in another home-and-home series. The Rockets were 8-0-0-0 against the Blazers last season and is an impressive 26-9-1-0 in the last 36 meetings between these two teams.   

Rockets Review: The Kelowna Rockets are defending BC Division champions. The team won 43 games last season (6th consecutive season of 40+ wins) and earned 93 points, 9 more than second place Victoria. The team scored 280 goals, the 5th most in the WHL and third most in the Western Conference behind Victoria and Spokane. The team tied for 8th in fewest goals allowed and earned a Western Conference high 26 home ice wins. Only Moose Jaw, Swift Current and Brandon won more times at home. With 79 power play goals, the Rockets had the third most with the extra man behind only Victoria and Swift Current. The Rockets also scored 17 shorthanded goals, tied with Moose Jaw and Brandon for the league lead.

Who’s Gone: The Rockets lose their top four point producers in Kole Lind, Dillon Dube, Carsen Twarynski and Cal Foote. That is over 300 points missing from the 2018-2019 roster. Also graduating was 20 year-old’s James Hilsendager and Gordie Ballhorn. Goaltender Brodan Salmond was claimed off waivers in the summer by Moose Jaw while Czech born forward Marek Skrvne was released. In total, 8 player from last year’s team are not with the hockey club.  Kole Lind was the leading scorer while Cal Foote was named the Defenceman of the Year.

New Faces: The team welcomes three rookies back on the defensive core. Listed player Devin Steffler is joined by Finnish born blueliner Lassi Thomson (Turns 18 on Monday). Both are 18 year-old defenders. Joining those two is 17 year-old Cayde Augustine (turns 17 October 5th). Up front, the team has added 16 year-old Ethan Ernst (3rd round pick in 2017), 17 year-old Kyle Crosbie (8th round pick in 2016),and acquired 20 year-old Ryan Bowen via trade with the Lethbridge Hurricanes last season. The team also obtained the playing rights to Mark Liwiski, a third round bantam pick of the Tips from 2016.  

Broadcasters Notebook: The team failed to have a player drafted in the 2018 NHL draft. Forward Kyle Topping attended San Jose Sharks rookie camp on a free agent tryout….Second year defenceman Kaedan Korczak won a gold medal for Canada at the first ever Hlinka-Gretzky Cup in Edmonton in August…Head Coach Jason Smith returns for his third season at the helm. Both assistant Kris Mallette and Travis Crickard enter their 5th seasons in the WHL….The Rockets play seven straight games to start the season against teams in the BC Division….The team is in Prince George for back to back games next weekend and host them this Wednesday at Prospera Place….The Rockets are in their 24th season in the Okanagan after relocating from Tacoma for the start of the 1995-1996 season…The Rockets have made the playoffs 11 consecutive seasons…The team has averaged 104 points in the last 6 seasons including a franchise high 118 in the 2013-2014 campaign when the hockey club lost only 11 times…The Rockets currently have 14 alumni playing in the NHL. That list includes Colton Sissons (Nashville), Josh Morrissey and Tyler Myers (Winnipeg), Leon Draisaitl (Edmonton), Damon Severson (New Jersey), Alex Edler (Vancouver), Shea Weber (Montreal), Mikael Backlund ( Calgary), Tyson Barrie (Colorado), Jamie Benn and Blake Comeau (Dallas), Madison Bowey (Washington), Luke Schenn (Anaheim) and Duncan Keith (Chicago)…Crickard spent the summer as an assistant coach and interm GM for the Botany Swarm of the New Zealand Ice Hockey League. The Swarm play from late April to early August.   

Roster Stats:
Player total: 24
Year by Year Breakdown:
20’s (1998) – 2   Chizen, Bowen 
19’s (1999) - 5   Topping, Mattson, Gardiner, Bruggen-Cate, Cowell
18’s (2000) - 10 Brennan, Porter, Foote, Zabransky, Kindree, Brennan, Kushniryk, Pow, Hair, Steffler,
17’s (2001) - 6   Korczak, Crosbie, Basran, Liwiski, Wilton, Augustine
16’s (2002) - 1   Ernst

Game Notes Compiled by Regan Bartel of AM 1150

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Winless in pre-season

Allen Douglas photo credit

  • Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I had a chance to watch the Kelowna Rockets pre-season game against the Kamloops Blazers last night. To be honest, it was my first look at any new players attempting to crack the roster with family commitments not allowing me to take in the opening weekend of exhibition action. Here is a quick summary of what I saw in the teams final tune up game, a 5-3 home ice loss to Kamloops.
  • There were three new players that stood out. Rookie Kyle Crosbie had a great game. The smallish size forward was dynamic with the puck and showed great offensive instincts. He stood out like a sore thumb on the power play. Sure, he is allowed more time and space in that situation, but you can clearly tell his puck skills are above average. I am no sure what his interest was like in the defensive zone, but when you have a player with that skill set, which you can't teach, you have to take the good with the bad and run with it. If you are an offensive dynamo, I give you more grace in the d-zone. The coaches won't, but on a team that may have problems scoring goals, I will. Crosbie, an 8th round bantam pick, makes my team in a heartbeat. My comparison for Crosbie? Kyle St. Denis with the way he pivots and works away from pressure while carrying the puck. . 
  • I was hoping to see Lassi Thomson show his value. The about to turn 18 year-old did not disappoint. I really like him. You can see he reads and reacts well and his ability to rush with the puck is impressive. I also like his shot, or his ability to get the puck on net through traffic. Thomson is in my top four. How does he defend? He has an active stick, makes contact when needed but he won't blow anyone up. Again, it is a one time viewing of a player who probably looked considerably better in his second pre-season games than he did in his first up in Kamloops on Friday.
  • Ryan Bowen. An overage player who has a real nice opportunity to flourish in a Rockets uniform this season, my expectations in my first evaluation of him was low. Why? Any player that is on his third WHL team and has a career high 9 goals with Moose Jaw in 2015-2016 doesn't exactly have you expecting great things offensively. That said, it appears the player has underachieved in the past and is a better player than he has showed. I liked his battle level, skating ability and at 6'2, he clearly is involved in initiating body contact. I hope he has a career year. He needs too for the team to have success. 
  • I will always remember Dylan McKinley. Plucked off waivers as a 20 year-old, McKinley came into Kelowna as a spare part. He  really did. Expectations were low. McKinley would go on to score 24 goals and collect a career high 68 points in 72 games in 2012-2013. Given opportunity and renewed confidence, McKinley proved he was a better player than his previous track record showed. How about Cody Fowlie? Released by Everett as a 20 year-old, Fowlie scored a career high 17 goals and generated 40 points that same season and was not considered an offensive dynamo when the Tips made him expendable. In Kelowna, Fowlie flourished. 
  • Kaedan Korczak really impressed me last night. Korczak looks so much older than a season ago. The composure with the puck is off the charts. The ability to quarterback the power play is impressive. As small of a skill set as it may sound, if you as a d-man can make a hard, crisp on the tape pass to an awaiting forward, you are making me very, very happy. Sounds elementary right? Then why do some defencemen at the junjor level, when pressured, fire a puck knee high to a teammate or deliver a pass that bounces and turns on end as it comes off his stick? Korzcak delivers hard passes which are easy to accept. 
  • My only fear for Korczak, in his draft year, is he will be forced into doing too much. It's called 'Cal Foote syndrome'. Cal was forced to cover up for others mistakes, which at times made him look out of position. My hope is Korczak doesn't try to do too much on a d-core that is as thin as the hair on my head. As a competitor, the temptation will be to mask others mistakes, which he will be able to do to a point, but will it make him look worse because of it? As much as I would like to see him paired with Lassi Thomson, the coaches may be forced to play them apart.  
  • I am here to suggest we are seeing a better Libor Zabransky. A year wiser after getting his feet wet as a rookie in the WHL last season. the undrafted d-man needs a solid season to show scouts that the hype around him was warranted. A captain for the Czech Republic on the International stage, Zabransky will play a more determined game this season with some added muscle and a better knowledge of the game on North American ice. I am a big fan of Libor off the ice. The 18 year-old had the misfortune of sitting behind me in the Rockets bus last season. I often talked to Libor, who while quiet, has a great personality. 
  • This may sound like an odd statement, but I have no concern with the goalie situation. I really don't. You would think I would with an 18 year-old and a 17 year-old carrying the mail. Roman Basran, who I project to be the starter, is an above average goalie and his backup, James Porter Junior, is more than adequate. The worst feeling is having that 'oh, no' moment when the starter is pulled in favour of the backup. In my opinion, that won't happen when either goalie comes into the game. Let's remember though, Basran will have some nights where the puck looks like a BB, so let's be patient with the player who has the hardest position on the ice.  
  • I won't name names, but clearly some of the rookies and new faces have outplayed some of the second year veterans on this team. I like Crosbie, Thomson, Bowen, Wilton and Steffler to name a few. Will the second year players on the bubble be given more time to prove themselves on the first weekend of the regular season? We will have to wait and see. 
  • The Rockets finish the pre-season 0-2-1-1 in four games. Without a win to show for it, I don't think it is a big deal. As one observer said to me last night, "If you win the games its a big deal. If you lose them, the losses mean little". 

Friday, August 24, 2018

Roster spots a plenty

  • Roster spots are a plenty as the Kelowna Rockets open main camp at Prospera Place. We haven't seen a huge turnover in talent in these parts for years, where significant high end players have moved on to play pro allowing new blood to emerge and cut their teeth at the WHL level. To refresh ones memory, the team loses its top four point producers in Kole Lind, Dillon Dube, Carsen Twarynski and Cal Foote. Lind was the leading scorer. Dube was the teams most dynamic player and Foote was the captain and top defenceman. That is 321 points combined from those four that have now exited the building. That leaves fourth leading point producer Kyle Topping (22+43=65) and Leif Mattson (25+35=60) tasked with doing the heavy lifting. But honestly, it is 19 and 20 year-old's that traditionally carry the mail. If you are a rookie forward or you played a limited role one season ago, now is the chance to prove that you are worthy of taking the next step.
  • The last time the Rockets lost their top four point producers was after the 2008-2009 season when Colin Long, Jamie Benn, Cody Almond and Ian Duval all graduated after winning the WHL championship and just came up short in the title game at the 2009 Memorial Cup in Rimouski.  
  • The blue line has also taken a significant hit. While Cal Foote moves on to play either in the NHL or with the Tampa Bay Lightning's AHL affiliate, 20 year-old's Gordie Ballhorn and James Hilsendager are also off to play Canadian college hockey. That leaves the team thin on defence, with veterans Brayden Chizen, Libor Zabransky and Kaedan Korzak returning. We can probably throw Kelvin Hair's name into the mix too, who played both as a defenceman and forward last season. Lassi Thomson, obtained at the CHL Import Draft in July, is expected to be the real deal and the hope is he can squeeze into a top four role.
  • Before we put massive pressure on Thomson, let's remember it was a significant learning curve last season for Libor Zabransky, who never found his game despite dressing in all 72 in his rookie campaign. The belief is the Czech resident will be much better in his second season while  playing with more motivation after failing to hear his name called at the NHL draft. Like Zabransky, Thomson will have to adapt to the smaller North American ice surface.  
  • Realistically, of the returning d-men, Kaedan Korczak is the big horse back there. The second year defender will log huge minutes which include power play time, possibly with Thomson, who has the most offensive upside of any of the returning d-men. The team has brought in 18 year-old rookie defenceman Devin Steffler, who was born in Colorado, but played in Europe last season.Can he make the team? Is he Gordie Ballhorn 2.0? Ballhorn was also undrafted yet made the team and made a significant impact. 
  • Leadership? The team is in the need of a new captain with the graduation of defenceman Cal Foote. Who wears the 'C' this season? Honestly, I don't have one candidate that really stands out. I think Leif Mattson has really matured over the last few seasons. Entering his third in the WHL, the 25 goal man is one of a handful of  19 year-old's, which also includes Erik Gardner, Connor Bruggen-Cate, Jack Cowell and Kyle Topping. Gardiner plays with the most passion and heart as he sacrifices his body at every turn. Someone in that group must emerge as a leader. Or do you go completely off the charts and look at 18 year-old Nolan Foote or 17 year-old Kaedan Korczak? Quiet yet respected by teammates, could those two players grow into that leadership spot? Sure, laugh at me now but remember a young player by the name of Colton Sissons was named captain in his 18 year-old season. Sissons was reserved, quiet but played hard and turned into a terrific player. Sissons would end up captaining the team in both his 18 and 19 year-old seasons. And with all honesty, I don't think the captain is as crucial as many believe at the major junior level.  
  • Looking quickly back to last season, while the team won 40+ games, it's record would have been significantly better had it not been for all the injuries. It was stupid at times. Nolan Foote may be the best example. After 19 goals in his rookie season, the second year forward had just 13 goals in 50 games. A broken knuckle in Everett didn't help his cause. I think Nolan can score 30 goals this season if he stays healthy. Erik Gardiner had a rough season after being hit in the head with a puck. Playing in only 31 games, the hardworking Gardiner found the back of the net only 7 times. The biggest disappointment was likely Jack Cowell, only because he was so good in pre-season. Cowell came into camp in awesome shape and it translated into a confident player, but something happened. I think missed offensive opportunities early in the season derailed his confidence and he was never able to get it back. That is why games in the first month of the season are so crucial, both as a team and as an individual. It is the building blocks for success. When self doubt enters the mind, it is extremely hard to get it back. Cowell scored just 10 goals in 71 games and was a team worst -19. 
  • Goaltending. It was a circus in 2017-2018. Essentially four goalies were used when Brodan Salmond (MCL), Roman Basran (Lower Body) and James Porter Junior (Upper Body) all went down at various points of the season with injuries. It was nuts. It was such a mess that the team had to recruit the services of 15 year-old affiliated player Cole Tisdale to fill the crease. Tisdale did remarkably well. In my evaluation of the three returning goalies (Brodan Salmond has been released), my belief, despite a small sample size is Basran is the best of the bunch. He is also the largest where size in goaltending does matter, especially if you are quick like the Delta, BC resident appears to be. The now 17 year-old had a sparkling 6-2-0-0 record last season and a goals against average of 2.28. The save percentage was also solid at .926. That said, Porter Junior and Tisdale need to make Basran sweat and make it hard for him to earn the #1 duties. Internal competition at that position is crucial.
  • What I would really like to see this season is a better 'team concept' game plan. I guess the dumb downed way of saying it is those on the ice need to play better as a unit of five.Last season the team was able to escape with victories thanks to great individual skill by several marquee players. This season it would be satisfying to witness more 'team wins' than individuals stepping up in an effort to win. The coaching staff, who are now together for a third consecutive season, have the know how to get it done. Let's see the players follow their lead.  

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Wong weighing options with eyes wide open

Trevor Wong
There is much to like about Trevor Wong. The same can be said about his father Ed. The apple truly doesn't fall far from the tree. I had a chance to meet both of them prior to Tuesday's Kelowna Rockets rookie camp workout at Prospera Place.
Trevor is a well-spoken 15 year-old, who is still undecided on whether his path to what he hopes will be a long career in the NHL includes the Kelowna Rockets, or if the lure of the NCAA is a better way of getting there.
Wong says whatever direction he takes, it's a win-win for him.
"Making a decision like this is hard. I am going to have to eventually make it, and hopefully it is the right one".
Wong was selected 18th overall in May's WHL bantam draft, a day he won't soon forget. "I was in Philadelphia and got off the ice and I heard I was taken by Kelowna. It was unbelievable. I had heard nothing but good things about the organization. I was excited to be a Rocket. Now that I am here at camp.....its surreal."
Wong made a verbal commitment to Denver in November, but by no means is it a signed and sealed deal that he will choose the NCAA. If it was, Wong wouldn't be in Kelowna this week.
"When I committed to Denver, that kind of cleared out some (WHL) teams that I didn't want to go too, but their were a couple I would consider and Kelowna was definitely one of them".
The Wong's are well versed in what both programs offer. Wong's agent/adviser is well respected Gerry Johannson and the family is friends with Kamloops Blazers majority owner Tom Gaglardi. Johannson played in the WHL with the New Westminster Bruins in the mid 80's, so knows the benefits of major junior hockey. Heck, the 51 year-old also was an assistant coach/director of player personnel and assistant GM with the Tri City Americans for five seasons. Gaglardi's son played minor hockey with Trevor and has spoken glowingly about the Kelowna Rockets organization and the tremendous options available should they consider the Canadian Hockey League.
What will be the tipping point on which direction Trevor Wong chooses?
"Obviously, Kelowna and Denver both send guys to the NHL and that's what I want to do. At the end of the day it will probably come down to what suits me the best and my family. I am just trying to concentrate on Kelowna right now."
Mimicking his game after Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, the 5'8, 140 pound slick skating forward knows this season will be his greatest challenge when he joins the Greater Vancouver Canadians of the BC Major Midget League where he will face older, stiffer competition. 
"I try to make players around me better by playing at a higher pace. I like to push the pace. I want to be a 200 foot player which is what will make me the next level player".
If Wong goes to Denver, it comes with a full ride American scholarship. If he elects to play with the Kelowna Rockets, the chance exists of playing in the 2020 Memorial Cup.
"The Mem Cup is huge and super exciting. Like I said, my decision will come down to what fits me best and my family, but the Mem Cup in Kelowna would be super cool and maybe that would be what pushes it one way or the other".

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Let the games begin

  • A sure sign that summer is almost over. Smokey skies. No that's not it. I should say Kelowna Rockets rookie camp is about to start at Prospera Place. The Rockets are getting the quickest start of any team in the WHL when it opens camp on Monday with close to 100 - fourteen and fifteen year-old's lining up for registration before officially taking to the ice on Tuesday. The Kamloops Blazers, by comparison, don't start camp until Thursday. The Victoria Royals open rookie camp on Tuesday. Heck, with the grayish skies outside, why not focus on hockey. It sure isn't beach weather.
  • Is rookie camp intriguing or a bit of a yawnfest? For the average fan it may be a little dull, but it is often my first chance to see the crop of players that Director of Player Personnel Lorne Frey and his scouting staff selected in May's WHL bantam draft. My eyes are on those players specifically. That doesn't mean the 80 or so other hopeful's don't have a chance to impress, but it is often hard for me to weed out the real players from the pretenders. That said, I was able to identify Ethan Ernst out of the huge pack of players at last years rookie camp as a standout. Ernst will now attend main camp this season and is a sure bet to make the roster in 2018-2019 unless something horribly goes wrong. 
  • I attended last years rookie camp with only one intention. I wanted to see Ethan Bowen up close. I had never seen him play. Bowen was the Rockets first pick in 2017, but they had to wait to take the Chilliwack resident in the second round as they had no first round pick after dealing it away in the Reid Gardiner trade. The question remains. Will Ethan Bowen attend main camp despite making a verbal commitment to the University of North Dakota? 
  • Who am I really watching at rookie camp? The honest answer is Trevor Wong. Wong was the Rockets first pick, 18th overall, in the 2018 WHL bantam draft. Highly skilled, Wong is an elite player and his offensive  numbers are no fluke. I won't come on this blog and lie to you by suggesting I know much about him. I don't. I've seen video clips. I have looked at 'Elite Prospects' to get a better idea of his success over the years, but I need to see him first hand. I spoke to both Trevor his father Ed after the draft and both seemed excited about the Rockets selected him despite his verbal commitment to play NCAA hockey down the road. It will be interesting to chat with them both, face to face.
  • For the record, I have already made the mistake of calling Trevor Wong, Tyler Wong. Tyler Wong, for all of you WHL followers, was a marquee player for the Lethbridge Hurricanes who scored 51 goals in his 20 year-old season as the team captain. If Trevor Wong indeed chooses the WHL, let's hope he generates the type of numbers Tyler did in his time in major junior hockey.
  • The Rockets selected 11 players in the 2018 WHL bantam draft, including one goalie by the name of Justin Dueck. Dueck is intriguing for me for one reason only. The 10th round pick grew up where I did, in southwest Saskatchewan. While I am originally from Swift Current, Dueck is from Waldeck, Saskatchewan and played bantam hockey in Swift Current. Dueck is still too young to make the team, but if he does down the road, he would be the first Saskatchewan born goalie since Kristofer Westblom to wear Kelowna Rockets colours. Westblom was taken in the 4th round back in 2002 and was born in Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan.  
  • As always, on-ice sessions are open to the public. Rookie camp starts with registration Monday and on-ice scheduled from Tuesday through Thursday. Main camp begins Friday with the veterans arriving for the start of physical testing under the watchful eye of athletic therapist Scott Hoyer. I will dive into main camp and what I hope to see in a blog post later this week.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

A worthy weekend cause

Josh Gorges and Blake Comeau   
  • In what can only described as the best charity event I have been involved with in my time in Kelowna, the KGH Foundation's first ever Gorges-Comeau 'Home Base' Slo-Pitch tournament was a massive success. The support the Foundation received during Friday's celebrity slo-pitch game at Kings Stadium was astonishing. I didn't know what to expect, but I had a good feeling that the event would be a massive hit when Josh Gorges and Blake Comeau put their names behind raising funds for JoeAnna's House. But again, you just don't know how it is going to be perceived in the community. For those wondering, JoeAnna's House will be a home away from home for families with out of town patients receiving specialized care at KGH.     
  • Being involved in this particular event was special on a number of levels. As a parent of twin boys, who are now healthy 15 year-old's, we were treated like gold at Kelowna General Hospital when they were born, prematurely, in February of 2003. Connell and Jace were required to stay in incubators for two weeks and were syringe fed so they could eventually gain enough weight to go home with us. Had we not lived in Kelowna, how could we afford to see our babies on a daily basis while  facing the challenge of the high risk pregnancy? That is where a place like JoeAnna's House comes into play. For parents of sick children at KGH, they will now have a place to stay - for free. 
  • The other reason why I was so pleased to be involved in the Gorges-Comeau celebrity game Friday night was my affiliation with the players. With all the participants, I have had some form of interaction with them over my 23 years in the Western Hockey League. I traveled many miles on the bus with Gorges and Comeau and have had the luxury of seeing the likes of Carey Price, Brent Seabrooke and Brendan Gallagher play junior hockey before they became household names. Only Tyson Jost, J.T Compher and Alexander Kerfoot were somewhat foreign to me. Jost, who played midget hockey with the Okanagan Rockets, played his junior hockey with the Penticton Vees while Compher and Kerfoot went the NCAA route. To say the event was right in my wheel house would be an understatement considering the  relationships built over the years.
  • Speaking of the players, hats off to them for volunteering for the event. Without them, it doesn't have the star power that it justly deserves. I am sure both Josh and Blake were busy recruiting players with many of them bending over backwards to attend. It really shows the heart that these guys have to help others while using their profile for the greater good. Whether flying or driving to Kelowna from out of town, the contribution they made by simply being there cannot be understated.    
  • Outside of the tremendous support of the community and first year sponsors of this event, what really impressed me was the team that was assembled by the KGH Foundation to pull it all off. Meeting with them in the Bell Media conference room in June, I wasn't sure what to expect. While swimming in uncharted waters to put on an event of this magnitude, they were as prepared as ever and had all hands on deck to make it a success. If you want to see what organized and attention to detail is all about, the KGH Foundation team had it going on! High five to Chandel Schmidt, Lindsay-Anne Dow, Shauna Nyrose and Mitch Carefoot, to name a few for the tremendous energy and ideas they brought to the table. It was fun working with them. 
  • I thought Mitch Carefoot was a star Friday night. Known as 'Rover Mitch', Carefoot worked the crowd to perfection with a number of games and his interaction with fans was solid. Like the players and fans, Carefoot was there to have fun and pulled it off in spades.         
  • The sold out event has me hoping it returns again next summer. How can it not? I think it can be bigger and better as it gains traction. While no fundraising goal was set, nor has a final total been released on how much money was raised, this is going be one of the biggest events on the Kelowna calendar in the month of June. My hope is to be involved again in 2019.
  • I wasn't sure what type of level of play we would see Friday night. Hockey players rarely play ball in the summer. It is often the norm to witness them on the golf course, but a bat and ball in-hand is very rare. That said, I thought the level of play was pretty high and the players ability not to take themselves too seriously only added to the fun of the evening. 
  • Purely on skill alone, the three NHL players that stood out for me were Jordin Tootoo, Damon Severson and Brendan Gallagher. Tootoo was named the MVP for his home-run and stellar play in centre field. Severson played a lot of baseball in his hometown of Melville growing up, and it showed. I thought Gallagher also looked like no stranger to the game, which was clearly evident by the rare sighting of baseball cleats worn by a handful of the 25 players participating in the event. 
  • For the record, Team Gorges beat Team Comeau 19-14. In what looked like a runaway for Team Gorges, Team Comeau rallied in the bottom of the 9th inning to make it close. Blake Comeau hit three consecutive home-runs to make it interesting. Why was he allowed to make three consecutive appearances at the plate? In a charity slo-pitch game, there is often a very gray area when it comes to the rule book. 
  • Sources tell me that Team Gorges was using Vaseline on Team Comeau's bats before the slippery substance was finally detected. We should have clued in when Carey Price (Team Gorges) was seen running into Team Comeau's dugout, pulling out a series of bats and then quickly running back to his own dugout. The Vaseline likely contributed to Team Comeau's inability to get the ball out of the infield in the first 7 innings.  
  • What would I change from the inaugural Gorges-Comeau slo-pitch fundraiser? Outside of the weather, which was cloudy and significantly cooler for that time of the year with the odd rain shower, not a thing. It exceeded my expectations. I hope others feel the same way. My wish is for you to be there next year to support the KGH Foundation and make it even better.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Summer arrives/Hockey talk is endless

Leif Mattson - Shoot the Breeze Photo 
  • Hello first day of Summer! Man, you look good. I love this time of the year. The weather is terrific and while quiet in arena's across the Western Hockey League, it is anything but dormant when it comes to hockey talk. The majority of the focus is on Dallas, Texas where this year’s NHL Draft will be held. The Kelowna Rockets have essentially four players that could hear their names called on Saturday. Kyle Topping is a sure bet to be selected, considering he was rated throughout the season by NHL Central Scouting as a mid to late round selection. Libor Zabransky and Leif Mattson also have a chance to hear their name called. I think Libor will get a good look despite what many scouts believe was an underwhelming rookie season in the WHL. 
  • The most intriguing Rockets player to watch for is Leif Mattson. Never ranked by NHL Central Scouting in either the season opening or midterm rankings, the 18 year-old intrigued enough people with a strong showing in his sophomore season to make NHLCS's third and final rankings in April. Mattson scored a career high 25 goals this past season and earned 60 points in 63 games. A project no doubt, but a 46 point improvement from his rookie campaign says something about his tremendous upside.
  • I spoke to Mattson, via phone, on Wednesday. Typical Leif Mattson. Always engaging. I just like the personality of the player. He comes across so well in any dialogue I have had with him. Whether it's an interview or just shooting the @*&%, he carries himself very well for a teenager. Trust me, I know. I deal with twin 15 year-old boys who are often tight lipped and don't show much of a pulse. It is an awkward stage in life where confidence is an issue. Dillon Dube and Kole Lind are two recent players that had zeal for life and knew how to carry themselves well. Leif Mattson, in my encounters, comes off the same way. Is it taught? Is it learned? Some of it is genetic. Some players are shy, reserved and isolate themselves from others. Sadly, my belief is more junior players are that way, but now we are getting into the psychology side of the discussion, so let's move on. While Mattson failed to make the opening two NHLCS draft lists, I rather appear on the final one in April than be left off it. 
  • Another player that potentially could get re-drafted is about to be 20 year-old Brayden Chizen. The big man failed to sign a contract with the NHL's Minnesota Wild on July 1st, becoming a free agent. The Wild selected 'Chiz' with the 8th to last pick in the 2016 draft. 
  • The Rockets organization has had 68 players taken in the NHL draft. Of those 68, 8 have been first round picks. Of those 8, six have been defenceman. Can you name the two forwards? The answer can be found at the end of the 'Rant'.
  • Assistant Coach Kris Mallette is down in Dallas, Texas for the NHL Draft. One of Mallette's primary goals is to attend a coaches conference where upwards of 30 NHL coaches will attend the one day session. I think it is a great experience for Mallette to be down there rubbing  shoulders with other coaches while adding more tools for his coaching tool box. Mallette is the only Rockets representative at the draft. Head Coach Jason Smith is on vacation. Who can blame him!! Assistant coach Travis Crickard is overseas helping coach in New Zealand of all places.
  • I have had a chance to correspond with both Mallette and Crickard over the summer via text. 'Cricks' tells me he ran into former Kelowna Rockets defenceman Nolan Yonkman in New Zealand. Now 37, Yonkman isn't about to retire yet, having played this past season in Finland. Yonkman has the bragging rights of scoring the first goal - ever - at Prospera Place. When he lit the lamp, the arena was known as Skyreach Place.
  • The Rockets have had 68 players selected in the NHL draft since the franchise was birthed in 1992. 
  • Bruce Hamilton has been re-elected for another two year term as the Chairman of the Board of Governors for the WHL. Let me clearly state here.....he is voted in by his PEERS and in no way pushes himself into this position. Many fans from outside Kelowna believe Hamilton has clout in the league considering he holds that portfolio. Indeed he does. He is chairman of the board for heaven’s sake. Does a CEO or manager have clout in the business word? Do they have to make unpopular decisions at times? Umm, ya. But if it was a problem and somehow gave the Rockets an unfair advantage, as some fans mistakenly suggest, why wouldn't other executives across the league step up and pursue the thankless job themselves? They don't. Why? All 21 other league representatives vote for Bruce because he knows what he is doing for the betterment of the league. Again, Hamilton is voted in by his peers and is now the longest standing chairman of the board in the history of the league.
  • I was asked the other day, in an on-air interview, to explain what I most admire about Hamilton. The first thing that comes to mind is loyalty. When I look back at all of the players that have come through the organization, Bruce is loyal to a fault with his players. He could have traded away Tyson Barrie. He could have dealt Brett Bulmer to Portland. Hamilton could have sent Cole Linaker packing in his 20 year-old season but traded Gage Quinney instead. Why? All of the players I've suggested had a start in the organization and Bruce wanted them to begin and end their junior careers wearing Kelowna Rockets colours. There are exceptions to the rule, sure. Shane McColgan was traded after beginning his career in the Okanagan at 16, but that was a mutual decision by both player and management. Heck, Hamilton could have traded Dube, Lind and Cal Foote at the trade deadline for a significant upgrade to a young talent. He didn't. Why? Loyalty to the players for sure, but also to a fan base that deserves to witness a certain high end product season after season.
  • I was stopped on the street the other day and found myself engaged in Rockets talk with a season ticket holder. Unafraid to express their feelings on the 2018-2019 edition of the hockey club, I retorted back that the greatest thing I want to see from this season’s roster is more importance to a better team game. Despite recent success (4 trips to the Western Conference finals in 5 years), those wins have often come as a result of superior individual skill. I love skilled players, don't get me wrong, but younger players this season will play a massive role in winning or losing. The coaching staff will have to work hard to make this happen and will earn every paycheck they receive.  
  • Before I head into holidays, I am excited about the prospects of co-hosting the Gorges/Comeau Homebase Celebrity slow-pitch game Friday June 29th at Kings Stadium. The KGH Foundation has asked me and Sun FM's Ari Daniel to co-host this event, where Josh Gorges will captain one team while Blake Comeau will captain the other. Several NHL players that reside in the Okanagan will participate in the fundraiser for JoeAnna's House (a home away from home for families of patients travelling to Kelowna General Hospital for advanced medical care). The list of players participating including Carey Price, Brendan Gallagher, Shea Weber, Ryan Johansen and Tyson Jost. It should be a great evening. A slow-pitch tournament Saturday June 30th will then feature in the neighbourhood of 20 teams competing in the inaugural event. Hope to see you out there. 
  • Nick Merkley was taken in the opening round of the Arizona Coyotes in 2015 while Scott Parker was selected by the Colorado Avalanche in 1998.  

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.