The past week was certainly busy at Prospera Place as the Kelowna Rockets began preparations for the 2018-19 Western Hockey League season.
Players arrived Monday for rookie camp and the on-ice workouts will conclude today. The players scrimmaged each day, enabling the Rockets to audition 98 young hopefuls.
While it has been some time for head coach Jason Smith — who fashioned an exemplary National Hockey League career that spanned over 17 seasons — he remembers well his early training-camp experiences as a player.
“Back then, there was no draft, players were listed,” Smith said of his tryout for the Regina Pats. “I look back to when I was a player, my first junior training camp, I was young and nervous and not really sure where I was going to fit in.
“All you can control is what you go out and do individually. At training camps, you have a wide variety of players at the junior level, younger kids and older kids. You just have to go out and try to leave an impression. You’re going to be nervous and you’re going to make mistakes.
“The hockey might not be too structured, but if you can leave an impression with the people that are evaluating, you can give yourself an opportunity to have success.”
Today, main camp begins with upwards of 50 players in the mix. The first on-ice sessions are on the weekend.
With the departure of high-octane offensive contributors Kole Lind, Dillon Dube and Cal Foote to professional hockey, there are obvious holes to fill moving forward. Over-agers Gordie Ballhorn, James Hilsendager and Carsen Twarynski have also graduated from junior hockey.
“Obviously there’s a turn over in junior hockey and often you lose your elite players,” Smith said. “We’re not going to replace Kole Lind’s offensive ability right away. Somebody is going to have to grow their game and build on what they already have.
“The opportunity that comes around every year in junior hockey is great. If you’re an organization that is doing things the right way, you’re developing guys to fill spots.
“We’re confident we have a group that by committee will be able to compete and get the results we want.”
Meanwhile, the hard work continues behind the scenes as the host committee is busy with the 2020 Memorial Cup bid preparations.
Efforts include discussions to secure any available government funding, preparing the video presentation for the league governors, nailing down the financial aspects of the bid and securing the building lease for the specific dates.
Projecting ticket sales, along with advertising and sponsorships revenue are also key pieces of the puzzle.
The WHL will announce its decision in early October. Kelowna, Kamloops, Victoria and Lethbridge are bidding to host to the national championship tournament in May 2020.
Among considerations by the WHL in assessing bids is a certain amount of reading the tea leaves regarding roster potential for its 2020 host team.
The Rockets project to have a strong 19-year-old group this season with the likes of Leif Mattson, Erik Gardiner, Jack Cowell, Kyle Topping and Conner Bruggen-Cate back in the mix.
“I think the league has already done its due diligence on the rosters, we had to submit those a while ago,” said Bruce Hamilton, the Rockets’ president and general manager. “In our case, we’ll have five 19-year-olds this year and I would be pretty surprised if we didn’t have three of those back as over-agers. I think they’re all significant players.
“Then there’s (Kaedan) Korczak and (Nolan) Foote, along with our import selection (Lassi) Thomson. These are all high-end guys.”
In addition to the roster depth, a successful bid to host would also serve as a terrific recruiting tool.
“It certainly helps,” Hamilton said. “I think this group (rookie camp), if there is anyone here that is looking at other options, knowing all of a sudden you’re going to play in the Memorial Cup is a nice plum to throw their way.
“But I’m not sure it’s as big a thing here as maybe in other centres. The mandate from me to our staff is to draft the best player available. If he’s committed to college, we’ll work to get him here, to change his mind.
“You win some and you lose some. If you start picking around who will come and who won’t come, you’re not picking the best player.”
Fond memories of the 2004 Memorial Cup week and the championship won by the host team, continue to linger in the Okanagan. So, what would it be like for Hamilton to hoist another Memorial Cup on home ice?
“It’s really special,” Hamilton said. “I think one thing I learned after we won it here, you learn in a hurry to never take anything for granted and never, ever let off the gas pedal enjoying everything that’s going on.
“It would be great to get the opportunity and I really hope we do because I think our city deserves another crack at it.”
ICE CHIPS: The Rockets will play three pre-season games at Prospera Place; Friday, Aug. 31 (Victoria Royals), Saturday, Sept. 1 (Prince George Cougars) and Saturday, Sept. 8 (Kamloops Blazers). . . . The regular-season home opener is set for Saturday, Sept. 22 against the Blazers.