And so it begins, the Kelowna Rockets’ quest to capture another Memorial Cup on home ice.
As prospective players take the ice for training camp this weekend, the first steps will be taken towards that ultimate goal in a season-long process — and Adam Foote will surely be preaching the process, one step at a time, with the first exhibition game next Friday and the regular-season opener set for Sept. 21.
Every step, from August to January to May, leads up to the Memorial Cup. As the host team for that championship tournament, the vision of hoisting major junior’s holy grail at Prospera Place — just like Josh Gorges and Shea Weber did back in 2004 — will be ingrained into Kelowna’s players as the season progresses.
“I don’t think that will be our message right off the hop,” said Bruce Hamilton, the Rockets’ president and general manager who will be overseeing the entire process. “We have to get this team formulated into a group of guys that are playing for each other and playing for the right reasons. So I don’t think we’ll spend a lot of time talking about that until we have our team.”
Roster Remains Work in Progress
There will be ups and downs — cuts and trades, injuries and absences — but that vision, that end goal, won’t change and the commitment to making it a reality won’t waver for Hamilton. This is his baby and also his legacy, so Hamilton will be making all the necessary moves to arm Foote’s coaching staff with the best possible roster to repeat that euphoria from 15 years ago — when grown men and total strangers were hugging him in the streets of downtown Kelowna into the wee hours on that May day amid a celebration of jubilation and gratification.
“Once we won the bid for the Memorial Cup (on Oct. 3, 2018), we’ve done lots of research and we’ve been looking at things since the season ended . . . spending time figuring out what we need to add to it and who we feel could be a difference-maker for us,” Hamilton said of targeting potential ringers and exploring upgrades throughout the lineup. “The wish list is a wish list, but the reality list is the one we’re going to be living by. It’s fine to want these guys, but if we don’t have the assets to get them, you can’t do it.
“The wish list is always out there, but we’ll see what we can get.”
Encouraged by Core
There is a solid core of returnees to build around — led by Foote’s son, Nolan, a first-round NHL draft pick and Kelowna’s likely captain — and a handful of new faces that could make an immediate impact. The loss of Lassi Thomson, another first-rounder, will be felt as other defenders adjust to more offensive roles, but the majority of pieces are in place for a deep playoff run.
“We’ve got some pretty exciting players. Nolan is a first-round pick, (Dillon) Hamaliuk is a second-round pick, (Kaedan) Korczak is a second-round pick, and Thomson if we’re fortunate enough to get him back is a first-round pick. So there’s some high skill,” Hamilton said in highlighting the current roster.
“I’m happy with what we’ve got, but I’ve never seen a team on paper win anything.”
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Major Moves Already Made
Winning will be a challenge, with the WHL having gone five years since its last Canadian Hockey League title in 2014 and with the Rockets having missed the playoffs last season for only the second time since relocating from Tacoma, Wash., to Kelowna in 1995 — the other time was in 2006-07. But Kelowna came as close as possible this time in dropping a tiebreaker game to rival Kamloops — on March 19, following the 2018-19 regular season — and the Rockets have already bolstered their roster to contend in 2020 thanks to a few key additions in the offseason.
“The trade we made with Seattle changed the makeup of our team significantly,” Hamilton said of acquiring Hamaliuk, a top-six winger, and Jake Lee, a top-four defender, as part of a blockbuster deal done at the bantam draft. Kelowna also acquired the rights to Sean Comrie, another top-four defender, from Brandon on the same day in early May and successfully recruited him to the WHL from the NCAA.
Standing Pat in Present
There will be more tinkering, to be certain, but Hamilton can be trusted at the helm with nearly 30 years of managerial experience in turning this team into a perennial contender in the Western Hockey League and one of the CHL’s flagship franchises. Hamilton’s track record — and that of his right-hand man Lorne Frey — speaks for itself.
“We’ve got to be patient. Lorne and I are going to preach patience here early on, within our own group, and just see what we have first. We have to find out what these guys can do,” Hamilton said of gradually building towards May and through the Jan. 10 trade deadline.
Confident in Coaches
Adam Foote took steps in forming a team identity despite falling short of the playoffs after taking over from Jason Smith as head coach partway through last season. Foote will be able to pick up where he left off in grooming this group of teenagers to peak at the perfect time in May.
An Olympic and two-time Stanley Cup champion, Foote knows what it takes to win at the highest level and how to handle the pressure and expectations that come with a season of this magnitude.
“He’s learned his way,” Hamilton said of Foote, “and we’ve added another really, really good assistant in Vernon Fiddler. And Kris Mallette has been around, he’s been to some of these Memorial Cups that we’ve attended (having joined the staff as an assistant under Dan Lambert prior to the 2015 WHL championship season). So the experience there is going to be critical, and hopefully they grow with the team.”
Looking Back, Then Ahead
The Rockets have been to two Memorial Cups in the past decade, suffering heartbreak at both in losing the 2009 final to the Taylor Hall-led Windsor Spitfires in Rimouski, Que., then falling in overtime of the 2015 final to the Oshawa Generals in Quebec City with Leon Draisaitl being named that tournament’s most valuable player in defeat.
In 2004, the Rockets bowed out to Everett in the third round of the WHL playoffs — losing in overtime of Game 7 in that conference final — before running the table as Memorial Cup hosts en route to defeating the QMJHL’s Gatineau Olympiques 2-1 in the championship game.
That set the bar extremely high for this season — the attendance bar too, with 6,636 fans packing into Prospera Place (capacity 6,007) for that final and 50,078 for the tournament as a whole — but replicating that success would provide a storybook ending for Hamilton and Frey, allowing them to go out on a high, on a winning note, if they so desired.
Granted, nobody is looking that far ahead — there is the process, remember — but, rest assured, that is the goal from Day 1.
“We’re excited about what we have,” Hamilton reiterated. “There has been a lot of time spent talking about what we need to get, but I think we need to find out what we have before we get worrying too much about what we need to get. We’re not going to know a lot about that until late September and into early October, when we have everybody back (from NHL camps) and going. We’ll get through that and see where we are.”
Larry Fisher is a senior writer and head scout for The Hockey Writers, having been an at-large contributor for THW since August 2014. Fisher covers both the NHL and the WHL, specializing in prospects and NHL draft content, including his annual mock drafts that date back to 2012. Fisher has also been a beat writer for the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets since 2008, formerly working as a sports reporter/editor for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada from 2008-2019. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC.