The Kelowna Rockets have never been scared off by college commitments.
But taking two in a row — two perceived NCAA-bound prospects — with their top bantam draft picks in consecutive years, that’s brave.
Some would say bold.
And risky, but potentially very rewarding if the Rockets can sway one or both to the WHL.
If successful in its bid to host the 2020 Memorial Cup, that would certainly help Kelowna’s chances of recruiting these high-end prospects since it would give them a guaranteed opportunity to shine on one of the biggest scouting stages for junior hockey.
It’s very much risk versus reward with the selections of Trevor Wong as a first-round pick, 18th overall in Thursday’s draft, and Ethan Bowen, taken 39th last year as a second-rounder in a draft where Kelowna had traded away its first-round pick.
Both were considered top-10, if not top-five talents from their respective draft classes, but Wong is committed to Denver and Bowen to North Dakota.
“It’s a bit of a gamble again . . . very non-committal (to the WHL), but it’s going to be up to us to sell him on our program and we’ve got some work to do there,” Lorne Frey, the Rockets’ assistant general manager, director of player personnel and bantam-draft guru, said of the challenging hurdles ahead in changing their minds. “We knew that going in here, but we’re very confident in our program and in our city, and the way we run things here, so if it works, it works, and if it doesn’t, we wish them the best of luck wherever they end up.”
The luring of Bowen is already well underway, with the Rockets acquiring the rights to his older brother Ryan Bowen from the Lethbridge Hurricanes at the WHL trade deadline in January in hopes of landing both for next season.
That remains a work in progress — Ethan Bowen did attend Kelowna’s rookie camp this past fall and his father Steve has since kept the lines of communication open with the Rockets — and the process of pursuing Wong is just beginning.
Bruce Hamilton, the Rockets’ owner and GM, reached out to the Wong family following the draft, including Trevor’s father Ed, and Frey indicated those conversations were positive, if not promising.
“They’re very excited, they’re very pleased with their selection to us,” Frey said. “We hadn’t talked to them prior to (the draft), but we talked to their representative prior to and he said there was an opportunity there. . . .
“I think they are more than willing to look at it, to see what we have to offer. I think they’re going to give us an opportunity.”
That sounds like reason for optimism, but it’s far from a sure thing at this point — probably 50-50 at best, unlike the majority of other prospects picked in the first round, who are overjoyed to immediately sign with their WHL teams.
However, the Rockets weren’t going to pass on Wong’s potential — by far the best player available at their draft position, according to various rankings — and felt he wouldn’t fall to them in the second round like Bowen did last year.
“There were several other clubs that, had we not taken him, he certainly would have went somewhere else,” Frey said. “It’s up to us now and we’ll see how it goes — it’s another one of those.”
The Bowen brothers stayed home this season, opting to play for the BCHL’s Chilliwack Chiefs, who will host the RBC Cup national Junior A championship tournament this month despite losing out in the first round of their league playoffs.
Ryan Bowen, who has played parts of three seasons in the WHL with Moose Jaw and then Lethbridge, would be an over-ager for the Rockets next season, while Ethan would be eligible to play the full campaign as a 16-year-old rookie.
Ethan could have played up to five games as an affiliated player this season but didn’t debut for Kelowna since it would have negated his NCAA eligibility.
That will also be the case for Wong in 2018-19 — all the 2018 draft picks are limited to a handful of games as 15-year-olds, and a single game forfeits a college scholarship — but Wong could break into the WHL in what could be a Memorial Cup season for Kelowna in 2019-20.
That thought wasn’t top of mind for the Rockets’ brass when it came time to make their pick, but they have since envisioned Wong as part of that roster if the stars were to align with Kelowna getting awarded the hosting rights this fall.
“Bruce and I have even talked about this, if he comes, that’s great, but he’s certainly not going to be a player that we’re going to rely on to help us win a Memorial Cup,” Frey said. “It’s a very good possibility if he decides to play with us, that he could be here in that year if we happen to get it. I think he’d be able to assist us in some way, but that’s not the reason we drafted him.
“We picked the best player available at the time and he was the man.”
That said, if the Memorial Cup is coming back to the Okanagan — the Rockets won the major junior national championship on home ice at Prospera Place in their first and only time hosting the tournament in 2004 — it’s an appealing carrot to dangle in front of any and all prospects.
That includes Bowen, and some pundits were surprised that Kelowna took Wong while still waiting on Bowen’s final decision, which will likely be made this summer — one way or the other, NCAA or WHL.
“It’s true, it’s a risk, but we had a very good ’02 draft last year. We drafted six forwards and we think all of them can play,” Frey said of their rationale for rolling the dice on another prospect tentatively committed to the college route. “We were very fortunate last year, and if Ethan decides to choose the other option, we’re very comfortable with the other five players that we took. We’re OK in that regard, but we’re still trying to get him here too.”
Going back in time, the Rockets swung and missed on Luke Moffatt as a second overall pick in 2007. He never reported to Kelowna, but despite striking out there, the Rockets hit a homer under similar circumstances with Shane McColgan at 13th overall in 2008.
Both were American kids — Moffatt from Arizona and McColgan from California — with NCAA aspirations, but these two are B.C. boys, with Wong a Vancouver native.
And don’t forget the Foote brothers — Cal and Nolan — who were coveted prospects on both sides of the border, growing up in Denver while their dad, Adam, patrolled the blue line for the Colorado Avalanche. They chose Kelowna over all the top NCAA programs, with Cal captaining the Rockets this season and Nolan projecting as a first-round NHL draft pick in 2019 like his brother was in 2017.
There were other less prominent misses over the years — such as fourth-rounders Cooper Haar in 2014 and Christian Cakebread in 2012, both from the U.S. — but the Rockets have a reasonably good track record of getting their guys.
Kelowna threw two more darts at California products in the later rounds this year, selecting defenceman Ryan Nutt in the seventh (150th overall) and centre Arvega Hovsepyan in the eighth (171st).
Again, the possibility of playing in the 2020 Memorial Cup could bring them north, but Frey expects to welcome those two to Kelowna sooner than later.
“I’ve had extensive conversations with them and their families, and they’re willing to give us an opportunity and willing to give us a look,” Frey said. “That’s all we ask from them, is that they come and check it out, and they were very excited and very interested in our program.
“They have both stated that they will attend training camp if at all possible, so we’re very pleased with that.”
The host city for 2020 will be determined at the WHL’s board of governors meetings on Oct. 3, with a June 1 deadline for bids from the league’s 22 teams.
The Kamloops Blazers are also in the mix to host, with the Victoria Royals expected to formally announce their bid soon. No other teams have publicly expressed an interest as of yet.