You know the hockey must be good if Bruce Hamilton is enjoying a late-night dinner in “beautiful downtown Regina” on a Thursday night — in December.
But the Kelowna Rockets general manager sounded downright excited by the idea when reached by phone.
And why not?
His team is 8-1-0-1 in its past 10 games. The Rockets started a challenging six-game East Division road trip Dec. 6 by beating the defending WHL champion Prince Albert Raiders.
They salvaged shootout wins against the Saskatoon Blades and Brandon Wheat Kings before finally stumbling against the Winnipeg Ice on Wednesday night.
Taking six of a possible eight points from four talented opponents is an accomplishment worth celebrating for the GM.
“I really like the way our team is buying into the plan,” Hamilton said.
All that stands between the Rockets and home are the Regina Pats (7-18-3) tonight and Moose Jaw Warriors (10-16-1) on Saturday.
No disrespect to those southern Saskatchewan cousins (if I had a nickel…) but these next two games are the rewards for surviving this far in such good shape.
Now, before the purists among you start calling me Homer McHomerson, I will admit it’s not been perfect.
Kelowna was out-shot 89-66 in the aforementioned three wins, and the power play has gone cold (2 goals from their past 20 chances).
This could be a different story if their Eastern opponents had scored more than two power-play goals in 13 chances.
So it’s not as if the Rockets have suddenly found a time machine to sneak Shea Weber, Josh Gorges and Kelly Guard into the lineup.
But maybe they don’t have to.
Not only have the Rockets won on a sustained road trip (with young men living out of hotels and eating in restaurants for 10 days), they’ve won with what you could call a makeshift roster.
Roman Basran and Cole Schwebius have been their usual, dependable selves in goal — with Basran displaying some outstanding hockey of late — and the defence is intact.
Kaedan Korczak has led the way with four assists on the road.
“I just don’t think we can go without talking about the way he’s played,” said Hamilton of his starting goaltender. “And Korczak has logged yeoman minutes. He’s obviously working his way into one of the top young defenceman in our league, for sure.”
But the forward group has been turned inside out by injuries, trades and a suspension. Three of Kelowna’s top six forwards have been in and out of the lineup.
Dillon Hamaliuk (illness), Kyle Topping (lower body) and Liam Kindree (upper body) remain sidelined.
The Rockets did welcome star rookie Pavel Novak back on Tuesday against Brandon after he served an eight-game suspension. But the day Novak returned, captain Nolan Foote departed for Team Canada.
It may be a difficult time to add new pieces, but recently acquired Jadon Joseph and Matthew Wedman have proven they’re capable and competent.
Wedman scored the lone goal in regulation, and then the only goal in the shootout, as Kelowna beat Brandon 2-1.
He also stepped in for a teammate. After the Blades Nolan Kneen laid out Foote in Saskatoon last Saturday, Wedman jumped to his teammate’s defence.
Foote was down and in obvious discomfort after Kneen, at a good pace, “backed” into Foote. The refs gave Kneen an interference penalty, but Wedman took his own toll from the Saskatoon defenceman (who took a cheap shot over a ref’s shoulder as they were stopping the fight, too).
“Wedman is going to have a massive influence on our team,” Hamilton said. “It’s real exciting having him around, not just as a player, but as a person.”
Can you imagine if Kneen had submarined Foote’s chances at the World Junior Team? Although Foote appeared to be favouring his back, he didn’t slow down once he arrived in Toronto for the selection camp.
Foote scored a goal in regulation and once in the shootout as Team Canada beat the U Sports all-stars 4-3 on Wednesday. Foote didn’t play in Team Canada’s 2-1 loss to U Sports on Thursday.
Hockey Canada said later last night that Foote had made it’s 24-man roster, but there may still be one more cut depending if the Chicago Blackhawks loan Kirby Dach to the juniors.
Regardless, the Rockets GM said, Foote has established himself on the squad.
“I think that he’s in good shape,” Hamilton said. “I’m not worried about him. He played really well in the game, I thought. You don’t want to read too much into sitting out, but they probably just decided they’d seen enough of him because they saw him in the two games out here in the Russia series. He was fine.”
The only downside of watching Foote wear the Maple Leaf is, he’ll likely be out of the Rockets lineup until early January.
Again, Hamilton remained cool — and that’s not because it was -21 C with the wind chill in Regina.
“I’ve seen a real significant change in the chemistry of our team over the last four weeks,” he said. “It’s an exciting group of guys to be around.”
Dave Trifunov is a reporter The Daily Courier. He’s collecting nickels for a trip home to Saskatoon, one day. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.