Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Road swing filled with success and failure

Speaking with ex-Rocket, now Calgary Flames Mikael Backlund
  • 2 and 2. Yep, about what I expected on the Kelowna Rockets Central Division road trip before Christmas. Optimistically, I was looking for more, possibly a heroic effort in Lethbridge or Calgary that simply didn't come to fruition. I knew the toughest challenge would come in Lethbridge after spending the previous night in Cranbrook. Playing the night before and throwing a 3 and a half hour bus ride into the mix against a strong team puts you behind the eight ball awfully quick. But for a team that is teetering around the .500 mark this season, few find themselves in the middle of the pack of the 22 team circuit able to play four games in five nights and run the table. History has shown, only the championship caliber team's that have significant depth are able to defy the odds and prove that winning on the road is not a problem.
  • I liked the way the Rockets ended the trip with a 2-1 victory in Medicine Hat. It has everyone feeling a little better about themselves heading into the Christmas break. While slow to start, the Rockets got a lucky one to take a 1-0 lead and then Leif Mattson scored a power play in the teams 16th win of the season. The officiating staff, who appeared through my 'Kelowna Rockets rose coloured glasses' of trying to keep it close, allowed the Tigers seven power play chances. Fortunately, assistant coach Kris Mallette's four man unit was again at its best in shutting the door. Heck, Roman Basran wasn't bad either with a 31 save performance and first star honors.
  • The Rockets scored just 7 goals in the four games out East. That is concerning. That just isn't enough to win games. Sure, 5-1 losses in Lethbridge and Calgary saw the team allowed far too many goals against, but both games had little in the way of the opposition goaltender forced to be one of the best players on the ice. In all four games, the Rockets were unable to out-shoot the opposition. Against Kootenay (30-30), Lethbridge (37-27), Calgary (32-26) and Medicine Hat (32-20) the team couldn't lead on a clock that is often indicative of how much defending a team is doing as opposed to playing in the offensive zone.  
  • Leif Mattson ends the road trip with 4 goals. Sure, those four goals came in two games, but one of the teams offensive threats did produce. The luckiest goal he will ever score came in Medicine Hat when the Tigers pulled the goaltender on a delayed penalty and a back pass to the blue-line, in error, saw the puck slowly slid into the unprotected Tigers net. Nolan Foote was shut out in all four games while Kyle Topping had only one goal (in Kootenay) in the four games.  
  • With a 16-17-2-0 record, the team is about where I expected it to be at the halfway point of the season. I just didn't anticipate the team losing so many games early in the season, only to see a coaching change and the team responding to Adam Foote at the helm. I will admit under Foote, the team is playing more to its strengths than its weaknesses. It has been a significant change to the run and gun offense that allowed the team to win 43 games and raise a BC Division banner high into the rafters last season. But despite  losing its top four point producers, I just didn't see the team changing the way they approached games. Maybe they were trying too, but it didn't visually look like they were trying to play more defensive until Foote took over. But don't blame Foote for wanting to play defensive hockey. Right now he needs his team to play that way in an effort to win. 
  • Sometimes statistics do lie. Look at Ethan Ernst's evolution as a player. I think the 16 year-old is doing exactly what Adam Foote wants him to do. The buy-in from a raw rookie is impressive. Ernst will spend the Christmas break wondering why he only has 1 goal this season. The fact is, his defending is superior to some veterans who have twice as many games under their belt at the WHL level. 
  • A trip like this provides so many highlites. I dislike the travel as we spend so little time sleeping in four different hotels over what can only be described as a chaotic schedule. That said, the people you meet along the way is the funniest part. Ok, that and winning. Meeting Kootenay Ice radio broadcaster Brant Hilton for the first time. Having some chuckles with Hurricanes radio man Dustin  Forbes before game time, or talking shop with Jeff Hollick in Calgary. The people around the game makes it a fun experience. 
  • Prior to Friday's game in Calgary, it was awesome talking to Ryan Huska. The winningest coach in franchise history, Huska was pressed for time as the team was flying out to Minnesota after a morning skate at the 'Dome'. But typical Huska, after a quick chat on the bench he said, 'I will hurry up and shower" in an effort to do a quick interview with me. The personable coach delivered as Rockets athletic therapist Scott Hoyer stood closely by mocking my every question with a chuckle and Huska's answers. It felt like old times. It was fun, even if not for a few fleeting minutes.      
  • I have always loved the Rockets alumni. The older I get, the more I appreciate the players that I remember as teenagers and are now grown men. Speaking to Calgary Flames forward Mikael Backlund was a highlite. Again, he too was pressed for time but took a few minutes with me to catch up. Backlund and his wife are expecting their first child in May.
  • Even the people you come across over your travels that you don't technically have verbal communication with make the road experience rewarding. Hitmen GM Jeff Chynoweth, one of my favourite personalities in the WHL, quickly swung by my broadcast booth while I was on the air. Jeff could have easily walked by, but didn't. I appreciate the handshake. Merry Christmas Jeff, if you read this drivel of a blog.  
  • Even the people you don't meet, yet their voice in the arena is familiar. Jim Duce is the longtime public address announcer for the Medicine Hat Tigers. I've never met the man, yet his voice has graced my airwaves for years when announcing goals and penalties at Tigers home games. It just sounds right. 
  • The road trips enabled me the opportunity to get to know Adam Foote better. I guess it works both ways as the new head coach has to deal with me on a daily basis. Trust takes time to build between broadcaster and coach and once that is achieved, the barriers come down. I've witnessed it first hand with every coach I've dealt with, from Marc Habscheid, Dan Lambert, Ryan Huska, Brad Ralph, Jason Smith and now Adam Foote. At the end of the day, I am not here to second guess them, but to support and cheer for them and the team they guide. 
  • The best hotel stay? We have four to pick from on this trip. Maybe its an unfair playing field, but the Delta Hotels by Marriott in downtown Calgary provided the best stay. Rated as a four star hotel, it truly delivers with rooms that have been recently renovated. The rain shower, the great beds, the massive flat screen TV and the inviting lobby, this hotel is a must stay. In my opinion it is now in a two-way horse race with the Edmonton Inn and Conference Centre as the best stay on the circuit. Yep, both now edge out the Crown Plaza in Portland.    
  • I again want to send a shout-out to our bus drivers on the trip. Greg Link again was the main man behind the wheel and did an excellent job of getting us from Cranbook to Lethbridge along snow covered roads. I even watched Link conduct a safety check of the bus before leaving the hotel in Medicine Hat. Link had his rubber mallet out, checking the tires. Small detail right? Link doesn't throw caution to the wind when it comes to safety. Impressive. Also, a high five to Mel Billings, who joined us in Calgary at 3 am in the morning to take over behind the wheel on our way home. Both Link and Billings are unsung hero's, but are valuable spokes in the wheel as we all attempt to do our job to the best of our abilities. 
  • No hockey until December 28th, eh? A little time away never hurts as we get set for the most exciting time of the season. The opening half saw as much change off the ice as on it. That likely will remain the theme before and after the WHL trade deadline January 10th. Enjoy the egg nog and Christmas tree and then strap yourself in for a crazy 33 games leading into the 2019 playoffs.

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