When the Kelowna Rockets hit the ice Sept. 21 against the Spokane Chiefs to open the 2019-20 Western Hockey League season, there was a tremendous amount of excitement.
It wasn’t just the usual opening night, fired-up fan base. No way. This was different. This was next level, off-the-charts anticipation as hosts for the 2020 Memorial Cup.
And then, just a few short weeks into the regular season, a downward spiral began, resulting in a tumultuous winter of discontent in the epicentre of the Okanagan Valley.
At the 2019 WHL Bantam Draft, the Rockets made a couple of deals to add important players to the roster.
Defenceman Jake Lee, forward Dillon Hamaliuk and goaltender Cole Schwebius were acquired from the Seattle Thunderbirds, while defenceman Sean Comrie was plucked from the University of Denver (NCAA) in a deal with the Brandon Wheat Kings.
All four were regulars during the 2019-20 season.
Overage forwards Kyle Topping and Leif Mattson, along with veterans Nolan Foote and Liam Kindree gave the Rockets reliable scoring depth and experience. Import forward Pavel Novak emerged as a solid addition and ultimately led the team in scoring.
The trio of Mark Liwiski, Alex Swetlikoff, and Michael Farren developed great chemistry during the second half of last season and returned as a projected forward unit as good as any other third-line combination in the WHL.
Youngsters Ethan Ernst, Trevor Wong, Dallon Wilton, and Jake Poole were all expected to make progress.
Blue-chipper Kaeden Korczak, along with returnee Devin Steffler bolstered the back end, but due to the departure of import Lassi Thomson, the top rookie in the Western Conference last season, it was acknowledged the organization would look to upgrade. Overage defenceman Carson Sass began the season in Kelowna.
In goal, Roman Basran was pegged as the number one keeper and Schwebius outplayed veteran James Porter to earn the backup role.
Injuries & Transactions
Through October, Kelowna compiled an 8-4-1-1 record, moving along at an acceptable pace amid ongoing speculation league-wide the organization would begin to bolster its roster in preparation for the Memorial Cup.
“Yep, Oct. 30 I believe is when he got hurt,” said general manager Bruce Hamilton when asked about the injury to key overage forward Kyle Topping. “That started a chain reaction where we ended up with about six or seven guys, significant guys, out of the lineup.”
Topping, an 11th round selection by the Rockets at the 2014 WHL Bantam Draft, had become a reliable contributor for the Rockets, a point-per-game producer last season. In Victoria, Topping fell into the end boards at the Save On Foods Memorial Arena during the Rockets 1-0 victory over the Royals. He suffered a broken ankle that required surgery and at the time it was assumed he was gone for the season.
Team captain Nolan Foote appeared sluggish, though the immensely talented forward was generally productive. A nagging lower back injury had reared its ugly head, yet Foote pressed on and was able to represent the WHL in the CIBC Canada/Russia Series games in early November.
Then Kindree was hurt, a lower-body injury.
Then Hamaliuk inexplicably begun to slow down and was eventually diagnosed with mononucleosis.
An untimely eight-game suspension to Novak – which frankly could have been longer – simply compounded the problems and forced even more line-juggling.
“You can survive with two or three probably, but not in the spot we were in,” Hamilton said about playing through the absence of so many key players.
“I was trying to make moves to better our team. At times, some pieces that may have been part of deals couldn’t be pieces because they were hurt. So, we had to switch right over to draft picks.”
Kelowna made a couple of trades with the Moose Jaw Warriors, basically moving some young players who were not likely to become key Memorial Cup contributors or future core pieces. The big acquisition was veteran forward Jadon Joseph, a veteran of 58 playoff games over the past three seasons.
The Rockets hung in through November, winning seven of 12 games for a 15-8-1-2 record before leaving Kelowna to begin its December schedule on the road for six games against East Division opponents.
Hamaliuk did not play on the trip out east. Then midway through the roadie, Foote, while still not one hundred percent, left the team to participate at the World Junior Championship.
However, Novak returned to the lineup and overage forward Matthew Wedman joined the team following another trade with Seattle.
“I just think I’m excited about it all,” Hamilton said back in early December after the Wedman deal. “I feel we still need to make some kind of a move on defense but to get this out of the way before Christmas is huge for us. We’re thrilled we got it done.”
By the time the Rockets returned to Kelowna, Hamilton had acquired overage defenceman Conner McDonald from the Edmonton Oil Kings. A gifted offensive defenceman, McDonald had not played for about six weeks after leaving the Oil Kings.
But the deal also forced Hamilton’s hand with four 20-year-olds on the roster and Kelowna moved Mattson to the Spokane Chiefs.
Unfortunately for the Rockets, the team had suffered another significant casualty on the eastern road trip.
In Regina, Comrie took a spill into the boards, seriously injured his shoulder and was lost long-term. Ultimately, it was a season-ending injury that required surgery.
And Steffler was beginning to feel the effects of playing on a sprained ankle.
A Happy New Year?
A highlight in January for the organization was the return of Foote, along with his gold medal earned as a member of Team Canada at the World Junior Championship. But Foote was damaged goods at that time and after taking a jolt in Kamloops during a game in mid-January, he was sidelined long-term with the back ailment.
Another highlight was the return of Topping, who had been back home on Vancouver Island for much of his ankle injury rehab stint. When he began skating in Kelowna, the Rockets were surprised at his progress, which further complicated matters with the Jan. 10 trade deadline looming.
Hamilton made a couple of tweaks, but nothing of the earth-shattering variety.
Defencemen Tyson Feist came over from the Regina Pats and import forward Jonas Peterek was acquired from the Calgary Hitmen. While not the marquee names many prognosticators expected the Rockets to land, the roster was pretty much set, albeit still decimated by injuries.
There were also murmurs the Rockets would benefit from some help between the pipes, but the team entered the second half of the regular season with Basran and Schwebius as the tandem.
“I was never going to trade any of our young kids or kids off our list that are the future of this team,” Hamilton said. “I’ve watched what other teams have done in the past and what’s happened to them.
“We haven’t touched this batch of the (2020) draft other than one or two picks. We’re picking eighth, so we’re in a good spot. So, I’m not worried about our team going forward, but it just seemed every day we were looking at how much further is this player or that player away from returning and it was never week-to-week.
“It was always month-to-month, whether it was Topping or Foote or Kindree.”
Speaking of Kindree, the 19-year-old suffered a broken collar-bone in January, shortly after returning from the lower-body injury. He was destined for another 8-to-10 weeks on the shelf.
“You can’t use it as an excuse, but at this level, you don’t have a farm team,” Hamilton said. “Thank goodness for the midget team here (Okanagan Rockets) where we had four guys on that team that are on our list. We could ferry kids in and out of there or we would have really been in a jackpot playing shorthanded a lot of the time.”
The revolving door through much of November and December did absolutely nothing to enhance stability and eventually, something had to give.
Steffler finally couldn’t go and missed seven games. Then Farren, who reportedly was in a vehicle accident, landed on the injury report in late January and didn’t play again.
The Rockets went 3-9-0-1 in January, ending the month on the short end of a 7-3 drubbing by the Spokane Chiefs at Prospera Place.
Indeed, the team appeared to be in total disarray.
When pressed, Hamilton acknowledged there were distractions. However, as is generally the case, Hamilton chose to take the high road and declined to discuss the issues in greater depth.
But suffice to say, the worst was yet to come.
The Coaching Change
After the debacle at home against the Chiefs, Kelowna traveled to Spokane the next day and were hammered 6-0. The following weekend, the Portland Winterhawks waltzed into Prospera Place and drilled the Rockets 7-3, before winning the second game of the doubleheader, 4-2.
Through four games in nine days – three on home ice – the Rockets went 0-4 and were outscored 24-8.
Unable to ice a consistently productive top-six forward group, combined with mediocre goaltending and a blueline brigade on fumes, Kelowna’s early February stumble included only one win in five starts.
It didn’t help that Wedman was sidelined for three games.
When the Rockets dropped a pair of games at home on the Family Day weekend to the non-playoff bound Red Deer Rebels (3-2), then a 6-5 decision in overtime to the Calgary Hitmen in a game the Rockets led 5-1 after 40 minutes, a coaching change was made.
On Feb. 19, Adam Foote was fired, replaced by assistant Kris Mallette, and the team responded with a 3-1-1-1 run to end the month with a 4-5-1-1 record.
All told under Mallette, the team went 5-2-1-1 and began to see the return of some key players.
There was a different vibe with Mallette at the helm and the “interim” tag was removed from his title on Mar. 2.
DUBNetwork spoke with Mallette on Mar. 20 and published this article about his new role.
The March Madness
Amid the jockeying for playoff positions, Kelowna played three games in March, winning twice to bring its record to 29-28-3-3 with five games to play.
Somehow, the Rockets managed a record above the .500 mark. The team was frequently close, playing a total of 35 one-goal games and winning 20 of them, despite losing well over 150 man games due to injuries.
On Mar. 13, the WHL postponed the 2019-20 regular season until further notice, due to the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It happened in a hurry,” Hamilton said. “The league started talking about shutting down the regular season and at that time everybody thought maybe it was only for a couple of weeks.”
On Mar. 18, the league announced the conclusion of the regular season and the teams were slotted into playoff positions according to winning percentages, in the hope of conducting the playoffs in some way, shape or form.
Of course, all eyes in Kelowna were on the status of the Memorial Cup tournament, scheduled for May 22-31. It was an enormous undertaking for the host committee and the organization, an honour bestowed on the city in October of 2018 when its exceptionally well-planned and professional bid earned the nod from the WHL Board of Governors over applications from Kamloops and Lethbridge.
“When the B.C. government marched out May 31 as the date for no events to be allowed, that’s when the bell really went off with us, with the Memorial Cup,” Hamilton said.
“There was a Cirque de Soleil skating event booked at Prospera Place for about ten days in June, and when it was canceled, that freed up a window for us to maybe go a little bit later.
“But we were pretty sure we might have some issues with the Delta Grand (hotel), which is almost as important as the building, having that hotel partnered with you.
“You get to a point where deposits are due, to the hotel, for the tents in front of the arena, for the entertainers that had been scheduled.”
On Mar. 23, the CHL announced it had canceled all playoffs and the Memorial Cup.
“If we were going to have a Memorial Cup, all three leagues wanted to have playoffs so that the teams were there for real,” Hamilton said. “So, we were going to be backed up to the tune of about five weeks. Then with what’s going on (COVID-19), we would have had no knowledge of when we could have crowds gather.
“We still don’t.
“To the credit of the CHL and the governors and CHL executive, they saw what we were getting into. It began to make sense that we could be into this for some significant money. As it is, we’ll already take a significant haircut now because of what we’ve got into it and what we can’t get back.”
Epilogue – Uncertain Times
Over the past couple of years with the Memorial Cup on the slate, handling the day-to-day operations of the Rockets, along with his role as Chairman of the WHL Board of Governors, it stands to reason he was occasionally stretched thin.
“I learned a long time ago,” Hamilton said. “If I’m fortunate enough to be elected to be the representative for the rest of the owners as chairman, I have to be prepared to give a bit of my day to that.
“So basically, early on every day of the week, it’s my time to communicate with the commissioner about what’s going on. A lot of that is confidential. We’ve had ongoing lawsuits at the CHL level, pretty much four or five years. That probably was some of the stuff that went on as well and it tied up a lot of time.
“We have a small staff here (in Kelowna), but they’re very experienced and have been around us a long time. So, if I ask for something to be done, they can get on it right away.”
Prior to this season, the Rockets missed the WHL playoffs twice since 1995, a record many junior teams would accept in a heartbeat. What also comes along with playoff success in junior hockey is the opportunity for the business to achieve success.
With the cancellation of the current post-season across the entire CHL, it’s a natural assumption some teams may find themselves in a bind.
“Of the 60 teams, I think a lot of teams will be stretched out,” Hamilton said. “You bank on breaking even during the regular season. The playoffs are where you get ahead and now there’s none of that. No matter who you are, that’s your profit.
“There are a whole bunch of them that will not make any money and likely will have significant losses.”
2019-2020 Kelowna Rockets Player Awards
Plus/Minus – Sponsored by GSL Group: Conner McDonald (+15)
Scholastic Player of the Year – Sponsored by the Team Doctors: Jake Poole
Most Improved – Sponsored by Western Star RJames Management Group: Elias Carmichael
Top Scorer – Sponsored by Pushor Mitchell: Pavel Novak (25g – 33a: 58 pts)
Unsung Hero – Sponsored by Grant Thornton: Jake Lee
Top Defensive Forward / Hollis Peirce Award – Donated by Dr. Murray Smith: Matthew Wedman
Top Defenceman – Sponsored by Melcor Lakeside Inc. : Kaedan Korczak
Most Sportsmanlike – Sponsored by Popeye’s Kelowna: Devin Steffler
Rookie of the Year – Sponsored by CapriCMW: Pavel Novak
Humanitarian – Sponsored by the Hamilton family: Michael Farren
Most Valuable Player – Sponsored by MacDermott’s Men’s Wear: Matthew Wedman