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.