Kelowna’s fate changed in 1995 when it was decided a Western Hockey League team called the Rockets would move here instead of Boise, Idaho.
“Certainly, we considered Boise,” said Bruce Hamilton, president and general manager of the Kelowna Rockets. “But Kelowna won out because we were promised a new rink. But first we had to play in Memorial Arena for four seasons.”
This is like a trip down memory lane for hockey fans.
With the Rockets now playing their 22nd season in Kelowna, it’s hard to imagine a time when we didn’t have the prestige, excitement and economic impact of Western Hockey League action. However, it was a leap of faith in 1995 for the Rockets to move from the 20,000-seat Tacoma Dome to Kelowna to play in the 1945-era Memorial Arena, which you can squeeze 2,600 in to watch hockey.
“The Dome was too big for us,” admitted Hamilton. “The team did well, but it was a learning experience. After four seasons in Tacoma, it was time to move.”
After toughing it out at Memorial from 1995-99, the Rockets started playing in the fall of 1999 at the new 6,000-seat Skyreach Place.
The rink has since been renamed Prospera Place and the facility’s and the team’s fortunes have been inextricably intertwined, with the team signing a series of six, five-year leases on the building.
“Hockey is a business and a sport, and in Kelowna the expectations are high every season for both,” said Hamilton. “Yes, we have athletes on the ice, but people buying tickets to watch the games is what drives the business. In that sense, the sales team is the most important part of the organization, because if we don’t sell tickets, we don’t have a team.”
With annual revenue and spending both around $3.5 million, Hamilton said Kelowna has one of the higher-end budgets in the 22-team league.
The Rockets’ economic impact ripples out from that with fans eating and drinking before and after home games at downtown restaurants.
Visiting teams also spend money in Kelowna on hotel and food. And many past Rockets who have reached the National Hockey League return to Kelowna to buy multi-million-dollar summer homes.
“Probably only three or four per cent of players make the NHL,” said Hamilton. “But the expectations seem to be higher in Kelowna, and we’ve produced more than our fair share (with 43) of our players going onto the NHL.”
Some of them include Josh Gorges, Shea Weber, Duncan Keith, Scott Hannan, Blake Comeau and Leon Draisaitl. But that isn’t the only measure of success.
The team has only missed the playoffs once in its 26-year history, won the Memorial Cup in 2004, has one of the largest season-ticket holder bases in the league and routinely fills up the rink for most games.
“We’ve also sent a lot of kids to university,” said Hamilton. “For every one year an athlete plays for us, we pay for one year of university.”
The Memorial Cup win in 2004 was made more the sweeter because the Canadian Hockey League championship tournament was held in Kelowna.
“We beat out Vancouver to host and we were the first city to transform the Memorial Cup into an 10-day entire-community festival with national TV coverage of every game,” said Hamilton. “We’ve been told by every city that's hosted since that we started something unique.”
Hamilton, who is from Saskatoon, played in the Western Hockey League for the Saskatoon Blades in the early 1970s.
In the 1976 NHL Draft, Hamilton was picked 81st overall by the St. Louis Blues.
However, after playing four years of minor professional and suffering an injury, Hamilton returned to the Blades as an assistant coach and scout.
By the mid 1980s, Hamilton was working two jobs: as a fireman in Saskatoon and as the Western Canadian scout for the Washing-ton Capitals.
“It really was the best of both worlds for me because I really enjoyed both jobs,” said Hamilton.
While on a Pacific Northwest swing scouting for the Capitals at WHL games involving the Portland Winterhawks, Spokane Chiefs and Tri-City Americans, Hamilton passed the Tacoma Dome and thought it would be a perfect spot for a Western Hockey League expansion team.
The league agreed and Hamilton assembled a group of investors, mostly family and some Tacoma investors, for the Tacoma Rockets to launch for the 1991-92 season.
At age 59, Hamilton isn’t considering retiring any time soon.
“I enjoy my job now as much as I ever have,” he said. “Every year is new and exciting as the lineup of the team changes and we maintain our presence in the community.”
Editor's note: Every week in this space with Top Forty Over 40 we profile a businessperson over the age of 40 who is having a great career and giving back through mentoring and volunteering. The series is presented by BDO Accountants and Consultants, Kelowna Chamber of Commerce and The Daily Courier. If you know of a deserving over 40 you'd like to nominate, send an email to TopForty@KelownaChamber.org.