All the hype in the Western Hockey League this season revolved around the Calgary Hitmen and Vancouver Giants. After both teams got off to incredible starts, they appeared poised for a dream final between the two biggest market teams in the WHL. That was until the Kelowna Rockets spoiled the party, beating both teams en route to their third league championship in just seven seasons.
The Rockets are participating in their fourth MasterCard Memorial Cup tournament in seven seasons. Kelowna hosted the Memorial Cup in 2004, winning the championship on home ice. In both of their other appearances, the Rockets failed to reach the final and were the first team eliminated in their last attempt in 2005 in London.
To say the Rockets’ championship run was surprising would be deceiving. Kelowna had a terrific regular season and was, on paper, one of the top teams in their league. The results weren’t there early but the team was missing several key players to National Hockey League camps, ultimately losing the pillar on defence in Luke Schenn. Although the Rockets were prepared and expected to lose Schenn, his departure still created a huge void.
Several players stepped up this season for Kelowna, particularly their six-foot-eight rear-guard Tyler Myers. The WHL’s playoff Most Valuable Player signed with the Buffalo Sabres, the team which drafted him 12th overall in last year’s NHL draft, and his playoff performance hints he will not be back in junior for his 19-year-old season, just as Schenn wasn’t this year.
The team made several big acquisitions at the trade deadline, adding veteran leadership and depth. Their biggest acquisition came in the form of Swedish sensation Mikael Backlund who chose not to return to Sweden after the Under-20 World Junior Championship. Backlund gave the team another offensive weapon to complement Jamie Benn. Like Backlund, Benn elected to join the Rockets last season instead of his previous plans which were to attend the University of Alaska-Fairbanks of the NCAA. The Rockets would, no doubt, not be where they are had these two forwards not joined their program.
Strengths: The Rockets boast one of the most well-rounded teams assembled this season. Kelowna has dynamic offence with Benn, Backlund, captain Colin Long and Cody Almond. Benn is one of the most feared shooters in the WHL with a quick release and pin-point accurate shot while Backlund is incredibly shifty and unpredictable with the puck on his stick. He also possesses a scorer’s instincts in tight and the flashy ability to get fans out of their seats.
Their secondary scoring was huge in their pursuit of the championship, particularly overage forward Ian Duval, Evan and Lucas Bloodoff and Stepan Novotny. Each player is a strong skater with speed to burn which created problems for the Hitmen in the league championship series.
Kelowna’s defensive core is very diverse with Myers and Tyson Barrie leading the attack. Myers is the king of all trades and proved to be a very effective offensive player with his ability to shield the puck and unleash a cannon slapshot from the point. Barrie is a quick and slick skating defenceman who loves jumping up on the rush, as evidenced on the overtime winning goal for the championship.
The rock that steadies the team, however, is in goal with Mark Guggenberger. Kelowna traded away Torrie Jung before the season then released overager Kris Lazaruk near Christmas before acquiring Guggenberger from Swift Current. Although he had never been a starter before, Guggenberger stole the spotlight and gave the team the dependable goaltending needed for a championship run.
Weaknesses: This team is virtually without weakness. General manager Bruce Hamilton built a team loaded with speed, skill, grit and desire. The Rockets don’t back down from any physical confrontations and are a headache to play against. Any team looking to neutralize the Rockets will have to be mindful of their speedy forwards.
Kelowna’s top defensive pair of Myers and Barrie is very strong at handling the puck, a trait which falls off down their depth chart. Collin Bowman, brother of high-scoring Spokane forward Drayson Bowman, is not a natural puck-carrier and can be pressured into making mistakes on the outlet passes. The rest of their defence, with the exception of former forward Brandon McMillan, is similar in that respect. While they have size and like the gritty play, a strong forecheck might disrupt the Rockets’ attack.
Keys to victory: The Rockets are quite simply a team that just doesn’t go away. No matter the score, Kelowna can claw back with their potent offensive attack. The Rockets did well playing with the lead and aren’t afraid to open things up with their offence being as strong as it is. Kelowna will need to use their team speed and create on the forecheck, which they have all throughout the post-season. Their power-play will also be a key factor as they boast the talent and systematic play that can capitalize each time a team takes a penalty.
Noteworthy: Head coach Ryan Huska is a three-time Memorial Cup champion as a player, winning the title with the Kamloops Blazers in 1992, 1994 and 1995. … The Rockets have never won the WHL and Memorial Cup championships in the same season. … Kelowna lost all three games in 2005 and was the first team eliminated in that tournament. … The Rockets beat the Gatineau Olympiques in the Memorial Cup final on home ice in 2004. … Kelowna lost to the Hull Olympiques in the semifinal of the 2003 tournament. … The last WHL team to win the Memorial Cup when it was hosted by the QMJHL was in 1994. The Kamloops Blazers, whom Huska played for, won the Memorial Cup in Laval, Que. … 18 WHL teams have won the Memorial Cup since 1972 when the tournament format originally included all three leagues. … The last two Memorial Cup champions were from the WHL: Spokane in 2008 and Vancouver in 2007.
NHL Drafted Rockets: Mikael Backlund, 1st round in 2007 (Calgary Flames); Jamie Benn, 5th round in 2007 (Dallas Stars); Cody Almond, 5th round in 2007 (Minnesota Wild); Tyler Myers, 1st round in 2008 (Buffalo Sabres); Brandon McMillan, 3rd round in 2008 (Anaheim Ducks); Colin Long, 4th round in 2008 (Phoenix Coyotes) and Ryley Grantham, 6th round in 2008 (Calgary Flames).
2009 NHL Draft Eligible players: Tyson Barrie, D; Collin Bowman, D; Stepan Novotny, RW; Evan Bloodoff, LW; Mitchell Callahan, RW; Aaron Borejko, D;
Regular season record: 47-21-1-3 (98 points)
League regular season ranking: Sixth overall, third in Western Conference
Combined regular season and playoff road record: 26-18-1-2
Regular season goal differential: 267-178
Playoff goal differential: 78-54
Playoff record: 16-6
Memorial Cup appearances: Three (2003, 2004, 2005)
Memorial Cup championships: One (2004)
League championships: Three (2003, 2005, 2009)
Rockets’ Memorial Cup schedule:
Kelowna vs. Rimouski, Friday, May 15 – 7:00 p.m. EST / 4:00 p.m. PST
Kelowna vs. Drummondville, Monday, May 18 – 7:00 p.m. EST / 4:00 p.m. PST
Kelowna vs. Windsor, Tuesday, May 19 – 7:00 p.m. EST / 4:00 p.m. PST
Memorial Cup Tie-breaker (if necessary), teams TBD, Thursday, May 21 – 7:00 p.m. EST / 4:00 p.m. PST
Memorial Cup Semifinal, teams TBD, May 22 – 7:00 p.m. EST / 4:00 p.m. PST
Memorial Cup Final, teams TBD, May 24 – 4:30 p.m. EST / 1:30 p.m. PST