With the Christmas break in the Western Hockey League regular-season schedule looming, the Kelowna Rockets will be on the road for a crucial swing through the Central Division.
Heading into the trip, the Rockets are 14-15-2-0. Success this week, perhaps three wins in four games, would put the team over .500 for the first time this season.
“Who would have thunk that?” quipped general manager Bruce Hamilton on Monday.
Following a disastrous 1-8 start through Oct. 10, the Rockets have gone 13-7-2 to climb into a Western Conference playoff position.
“I think it’s going to be a bit of a test,” Hamilton said of this week’s road trip. “I really stressed to them that this first game (Kootenay), if they start thinking they have an easy game, they’ll get their lunch handed to them because people play hard and we’re not that much better.”
The Rockets will play four games in five nights, starting tonight in Cranbrook against Kootenay, followed by stops in Lethbridge, Calgary and Medicine Hat. Lethbridge and Medicine Hat have more wins than Kelowna.
The Rockets will be without defenceman Libor Zabransky, who has been summoned to the Czech Republic selection camp for the upcoming World Junior Championship.
Fellow defenceman Lassi Thomson will be available for the first three games, before heading to Vancouver on Saturday to audition for Finland.
The Czech Republic and Finland are not in the same preliminary-round pool.
Behind the bench
The Rockets and assistant coach Travis Crickard parted ways on the weekend.
Crickard joined the organization in 2014 and was part of the 2015 WHL championship team.
On Nov. 30, in an interview with The Daily Courier, Hamilton was asked how things have progressed under new coach Adam Foote’s guidance and specifically the role of the assistant coaches.
“Adam is very hands on with detail with what’s going on within the group,” Hamilton said of Foote, who replaced Jason Smith on Oct. 23. “The assistants have probably been sitting in school here with Adam, getting a little better description of what their jobs are and probably they have less input now than they did.
“I think that’s all in the process, and they’ll get more and more as it goes here, as he understands what they are capable of.”
Under Foote, the Rockets are 10-5-2-0.
Hamilton was asked on Monday if perhaps the former assistant coach preferred to have more autonomy.
“I think that’s a fair statement,” Hamilton said of Crickard, who had been in charge of the team’s power play under Smith. “I think what he wants to be is a head coach right away.
“Both of these assistants have been carried through two head coaches. One of the things Adam wanted was the ability to change the coaches if he wanted and I agreed to that. The only thing I did say is you’ve got to spend some time with them first,” Hamilton added of Crickard and Kris Mallette, who were hired under Dan Lambert and stayed on under Brad Ralph and Smith. Mallette is still on the staff, but his contract is also up at the end of this season.
With Crickard’s departure, speculation will ramp up that Josh Gorges might enter the fray.
The local product and veteran of 800-plus National Hockey League games has been highly visible at home games this season and has been on the ice at practices.
Gorges was the Rockets’ captain when the team won the Memorial Cup in Kelowna as host in 2004.
“Josh is only three or four months into retirement (as a player),” Hamilton said. “I don’t want to ask him to do something that he isn’t ready to do. Adam really likes him, but we’re not in a rush to hire anybody right now.”
The Nov. 30 trade with Kootenay that saw 19-year-old forward Jack Cowell sent to Cranbrook in exchange for a third-round pick in the 2020 WHL Bantam Draft has been voided.
“He’s suspended by the league,” Hamilton said when asked about Cowell’s status.
“I’m going to call him this week to see if he has had a change of heart,” Hamilton added of Cowell, who did not report to his new team. “He was one guy I thought any change would be good. He works hard, did a lot of things but just couldn’t score, and I thought a change of scenery might be the best thing for him.
“It hurts us because one, we lose the player, and two, we lose the draft pick. The 2020 draft is one where those picks are really coveted more than any of the other drafts. We’re all being careful what we do with them.”
Good seats still available
Prospera Place appears to have become a tougher building for opponents to play in since the arrival of Foote. The Rockets are 7-1-1 in their last nine home games.
However, according to WHL attendance reports, through 15 games at home this season, the Rockets have drawn an average of 4,571 per outing, eclipsing the 5,000 mark only three times in a building with a capacity of 6,007 for hockey.
The early-season swoon did not help ticket sales, while Wednesday evening games have traditionally been a rather tough-sell.
Last season, the Rockets also played 15 home games before the Christmas break and averaged 4,848 per contest, drawing 5,000-plus on seven occasions.
After Christmas, the Rockets will play 19 of their remaining 33 games on home ice.
Road trip preview
The Rockets are aiming to build on their two-game winning streak tonight, having defeated the Tri-City Americans 4-3 in a shootout on Dec. 5 before blanking the Victoria Royals 2-0 this past Friday.
Goaltender Roman Basran, who backstopped that shutout with 16 saves, says the team is ready for the trip and not too concerned about the distance they’re travelling.
“We’ve been waiting for this trip for a while,” said Basran. “It will be good for our game and as a team. The travel isn’t an issue. We’re used to being on the bus for long periods of time, it’s no different than a trip down to Tri-City, Seattle or Portland. It’s all the same.”
Tonight will be the only meeting of the regular season between Kelowna and Kootenay. In their lone game last season, Kyle Topping had two assists in helping the Rockets beat the Ice 5-2 at Prospera Place on Dec. 2, 2017.
Kelowna enters tonight in second place in the B.C. Division with 30 points and a 14-15-2-0 record. The Rockets are two points in front of the Victoria Royals and Kamloops Blazers, who are tied for third, and five points ahead of the fifth-place Prince George Cougars. The Rockets are 14 points back of the division-leading Vancouver Giants (21-6-2-0).
Kootenay has a record of 7-20-5-1 for 20 points and sits sixth in the Central Division. The Ice are 20 points back of the first-place Red Deer Rebels (19-9-2-0).
The Rockets are then in Lethbridge on Wednesday, Calgary on Friday and Medicine Hat on Saturday before the holiday break.
Kelowna returns with a home-and-home against the rival Kamloops Blazers, on the road on Friday, Dec. 28 and then at Prospera Place on Saturday, Dec. 29.