It wasn’t supposed to end this way.
Not for the Kelowna Rockets.
Not for the Western Hockey League.
Not for DUBNetwork.
Not for me.
Last week, as we arrived at the end of the 2020 Memorial Cup round-robin schedule – a May 26 tilt between the host Rockets and the WHL representatives – so much would have already been decided.
Unfortunately, whether game six of the national championship tournament would have had significant playoff round implications will never be known.
But, so many questions would have been answered.
Where it all began
We landed in West Kelowna at the end of July, 2005. It was life-changing, arriving from the Edmonton area and now even further away from our hometowns in Saskatchewan.
On my “to do” list was applying for a volunteer position during the 2006 IIHF World Junior Championship, where the pool not including Team Canada would play its preliminary round games between the cities of Kelowna and Kamloops. The playoff round was scheduled for Vancouver.
I connected with Gavin Hamilton at the Rockets office and he directed me to the host committee.
I had also applied for media accreditation as I was part of the Hockey’s Future team. I didn’t have much faith the application would be accepted, so participating as a volunteer was another great way to be involved.
Alas, I was accredited by the IIHF or Hockey Canada, which ever governing body made the final decision.
And so it began, a 14-season long run based in Kelowna, covering the Rockets and the WHL in a number of capacities. There were also two WJC’s, four Top Prospects Games and a bunch of Canada/Russia Super Series games in various British Columbia locales. There was also the Young Stars Tournament in Penticton, too.
The WHL highlights
Growing up in Saskatoon, the Blades were the centre of attention. The Saskatoon Arena was a funky place to watch hockey, but there is certainly plenty of history and some outstanding players who cut their teeth (or perhaps lost a few) at the old barn on 19th Street.
Bernie Federko and Bob Bourne are a couple who come to mind. There were some tough customers over the years, guys like Dave Brown, Joey Kocur and Tony Twist.
And the likes of Dennis Beyak and Roger Millions navigated the decrepit old stairway up to an equally prehistoric play-by-play booth.
But, the fly in the ointment for me is the fact the Blades have never won a WHL championship. They have been to the league final a few times, but the Medicine Hat Tigers, New Westminster Bruins and Kamloops Blazers all took turns denying us a championship.
And so it was with some interest I got to know the Hamilton family while in Kelowna, the owners of the Rockets. They have deep roots in Saskatoon, are familiar with the city’s junior hockey history and are all passionate WHL supporters.
While I missed the 2004 Memorial Cup in Kelowna, a win on home-ice for the Rockets, I was in Prospera Place when the team captured the league title on May 9, 2009. This was an exciting playoff run, with future NHLers Tyson Barrie, Jamie Benn and Mikael Backlund combining on the overtime winner against the heavily-favoured Calgary Hitmen in game six of the league championship series. For the record, Tyler Myers was also on the ice. That’s some pretty significant National Hockey League talent.
It happened again in 2015 when the Rockets dispatched the Brandon Wheat Kings in four straight with a lineup that included key mid-season additions Leon Draisaitl and Josh Morrissey.
That championship vibe was all set to resonate again last week with the 2020 Memorial Cup in Kelowna. Alas, we all know how that transpired.
The current day doom & gloom
The entire COVID-19 has thrown North America into such turmoil. Personally, I fear so much for our economy. Certainly the health of major junior hockey, along with so many other sporting entities, has become a casualty of the pandemic.
According to Bruce Hamilton, general manager of the Kelowna Rockets, cancellation of the 2020 Memorial Cup resulted in an enormous financial hit.
“Probably $15 to $20 million for the 10 days,” Hamilton said. “At least, that’s what was projected.
When we spoke with Hamilton on Monday, the day after the championship final was to be played, he was reflective, though it wasn’t difficult to feel the disappointment in his voice.
“You know, we look at what’s going on and it would have been great to have,” he said. “I mean, it just would have been such a great kickoff to the spring here, and the summer, because it would have been finishing up Sunday and we’re into June now.”
While hockey would have been the focus throughout the four-team national championship tournament, the city of Kelowna would have been bustling.
“So much work had gone into all the other events around the city,” Hamilton said. “And those are events for those people that you know bought into the plan of us winning the bid, then taking over and creating more things to happen downtown. And maybe most importantly, events for people to go to who couldn’t get tickets to the games.”
The past couple of weeks have been rather somber for the Rockets, the organizing committee and of course, the CHL.
“I think it really hit home on the Thursday prior to the tournament,” Hamilton said. “All the teams would have arrived here and then the opening banquet, the parade, the Cup arriving downtown. It all would have been pretty good.
“They (organizing committee) had a great plan. The weather was fabulous here all week, other than the final Sunday. It was just beautiful Kelowna weather and events under bright sunny skies would have been great.
“It was really disheartening. But, you know, a lot of stuff is going on in the world that’s a lot more important right now.”
The people business
While the Memorial Cup week would have been a tremendous celebration of major junior hockey, it was pegged in my world as kind of a final personal farewell to Kelowna.
Having left a year ago for a new job and to be closer to family on the prairies, my plan was to attend the tournament in Kelowna, either in a working capacity or as a spectator. It would’ve been a week filled with fun and festivities, probably a couple rounds of golf with a few of the characters I’ve met over the years.
Ultimately, my goodbye’s will have to take another form.
Upon reflection, the most enjoyable part of covering the WHL while based in Kelowna was the opportunity to meet so many terrific people. From scouts to coaches, team management and of course, so many players. These are treasured interactions and thankfully, many have been recorded in print features and game coverage articles.
Much of my time was spent dealing with other media personnel. A handful of people come to mind for various reasons.
Regan Bartel, Kelowna: Overall a pretty solid guy and certainly worthy of induction into the BC Hockey Hall of Fame. His lengthy tenure in the WHL says it all, from Swift Current to Kelowna. I never appeared on air with Regan, but hopped into a weekly “Hockey Guys” feature on AM1150 during the 2018-19 season. Regan recommended me to the morning show host and indicated to me it wasn’t really his cup of tea, given his already vast coverage responsibilities. Regan has had the benefit of calling the play for some very, very good teams over the years, but I think some of his best work has been done when the Rockets have had an off year.
Dan O’Connor, Prince George/Vancouver: I met Dan when he had a very full plate with the Cougars and learned he had responsibilities on the travel side for the team in addition to play-by-play. This interested me, given my hotel sales and marketing background. Indeed, I understand the workload associated with Dan’s responsibilities in this area. But Dan’s energy and enthusiasm always caught my eye. I think it’s very impressive. Watching him work the microphone and social media at the same time during a broadcast was really interesting. Again, impressive, and I see Dan becoming a mentor of sorts for young broadcasters, if he hasn’t already begun to do so.
Jon Keen, Kamloops: Another long-tenured play-by play voice who made his way to the Okanagan Valley after a stint in Swift Current. High energy and a great goal call, along with important behind the scenes efforts to produce WHL Radio Show on a weekly basis. Our relationship soured in recent years, as I grew weary of the constant negative chirp toward the Rockets and the city of Kelowna, especially in light of Kamloops being passed by as hosts for the ill-fated 2020 Memorial Cup. And, simply too much editorializing on the negative side about officiating for my liking…I’ve taken a couple of flying pencils off the back of my head in the press box over the years when his intensity gets the better of him. But, more importantly, we do share a passion for golf and much love and caring for our dogs, so there might be potential for a small measure of common ground.
Marlon Martens, Victoria: If there is a play-by-play personality in the B.C. Division who comes across as a guy with ice in his veins, it’s probably Marlon. He is relaxed during his call and I like his consistency – it kind of reminds me of Craig West calling a baseball game. Marlon shared some interesting tips over the years and insights regarding discussions with general managers and head coach’s when the brass want to evaluate broadcasts. Marlon would’ve felt the sting during a few close losses to Kelowna over the years, but I’ve always seen him as very level-headed in his role.
Fraser Rodgers, Prince George: A real interesting young guy who landed in BC’s northern capital when O’Connor left for Vancouver. I like his call, but more interesting to me is the back story after his stint in Penticton when he left the Vees play-by-play role. By all accounts, he is enjoying life in PG with his young family and I sincerely hope the Cougars enjoy some success in the coming years with Fraser in the booth.
Larry Fisher, Kelowna: The former sports editor at the Kelowna Daily Courier played an integral role in my opportunity to cover the Rockets home games for the paper for the entirety of the 2018-19 season. I enjoyed the experience and took it seriously. Larry was able to chip in after games during the week when he was working the desk, careful to eyeball any potential errors and also able to buy me some time when a game would go into extra time. A solid, knowledgeable hockey guy, Larry is not afraid to ask the tough questions, something that doesn’t always go over well in Kelowna.
Doyle Potenteau, Kelowna: Another absolute workhorse with a great WHL resume on the print coverage side. He was able to enjoy much of the Rockets early success in Kelowna as the local paper sincerely seemed to give a damn about coverage during the first decade of the current millennium. Doyle reached out to me on occasion, extended me a number of freelance opportunities and is a reliable resource for historical WHL intel. It also doesn’t hurt that he is always good for a few laughs.
Wayne Moore, Kelowna: As one of the faces of Castanet in Kelowna, Wayne became a reliable confidante over the years and I really trust his take on all things Rockets. A versatile, veteran journalist who is involved in the community of West Kelowna, Wayne and I were often the last two people in the press box after Rockets home games. Those were the times where the real in-depth conversations evolved. We didn’t solve all the hockey problems in the world, but I’m confident we came damn close!
Marissa Baecker, Kelowna: An incredibly skilled photographer. Just a total professional!
Warren Henderson, Kelowna: Another newspaper guy who watched the industry denigrate over the years, relative to junior hockey beat coverage. A veteran television broadcaster who moved over to the print side, Warren worked with my father in Saskatoon at CFQC-TV many years ago. He was calm, cool and collected at all times and it was always entertaining to wander down memory lane with him.
Bill Wilms, Vancouver: Just a tremendously entertaining man and such a wealth of hockey knowledge. I’m so thankful for the opportunities to chat with Bill, on and off the air. I thoroughly enjoyed his book – It Always Got Better – a nifty gift he handed off to me a couple of years ago. It doesn’t hurt that we could take our conversation from hockey to competitive golf as well – something we both enjoy. The WHL is a better place today having had Bill in the booth for television and radio coverage.
Gregg Drinnan, Kamloops: Probably the top WHL historian and such an interesting guy to chat with. I so wish Kamloops still had a daily newspaper with Gregg at the helm of the sports department. I read his blog, Taking Note, but have grown weary of some of its “bite” from time to time. The WHL has given Gregg a lifetime of memories and he has given so much of himself to the WHL. I just wish I could feel like there is more harmony between the two these days, though I fear that ship has sailed. Gregg was supportive during my cancer treatment nearly a decade ago and I am really encouraged by his commitment these days to providing awareness of organ donation.
There is so much up in the air right now that it is very difficult to plan.
I am confident the league and the teams are desirous of media coverage, whether it be traditional print, radio or television, in addition to what the Internet can offer. However, it has become apparent to me in recent years that many teams are taking the initiative to provide their own coverage.
Given the slow and merciless death march of newspapers worldwide, and the subsequent drop off in regularized junior hockey coverage in many Canadian markets, it’s not hard to understand why an organization would endeavour to take charge of providing regular team news. Years ago, it was all about press releases, then the media covering the teams would follow up and generally expand on the release.
These days, it’s not uncommon for a media outlet to simply copy and paste the release, pump something out quickly online, then move on to other things. Of course, this new team approach tends to enable an organization to control the message. Each WHL team seems to deal with this in their own, suitable way.
For DUBNetwork, the core group of writers were passionate about their respective teams and most of them also understood the importance of the bigger picture. For example, a motivated, committed team writer also had to have a very good handle on the entire division, and even the conference.
The focus was always on the upside of player performance and development, along with highlighting the personalities and achievements. We left the supposedly bigger, controversial issues, those that generally resulted in negative vibes, to the old warhorses across the country who in recent years often seemed to favour a “stick it to the man” approach.
I can assure you that among the DUBNetwork group, we were very well informed about ongoing lawsuits, concussion protocols, online gambling, player misconduct and all myriad of adventures, but we collectively agreed to look for the success stories instead.
Personally, I’ve been at it for almost two decades, primarily as what I refer to as a “peripheral” media wag – a freelance writer. I value the relationships I’ve built. In fact, many of these remain intact from my days in the hotel industry between 1984 to 1993. My media roles have provided a means for me to remain involved with the WHL, up close and personal with some of the real long-term contributors to the league’s growth and good fortune.
Moving forward, I don’t know what I will endeavour to provide. I’ll certainly keep an eye on WHL happenings as I have not lost my interest in the product. I do have little regard for petty political BS, so stepping away to some degree will certainly come with some personal benefit.
I am intrigued by the potential for the league moving forward, curious how industry veterans and newbies will combine their experience, energy, enthusiasm and expertise to bring us the “new” WHL!
I’ve always kind of laughed to myself when I think about some of the interactions over the years with certain people in the hockey business. As I’ve said in the past, don’t think for one second that everybody is everybody’s buddy.
We’ve had a group of about 25 writers with DUBNetwork and it’s apparent we are not all on the same page in many regards. Call it human nature.
There are those I know who would openly suggest that, “you know, that Glen is kind of a jerk”.
And then, I know others who have said openly, “you know, I really enjoy Glen”.
In fairness, they are all correct!
You see, I choose to treat people accordingly. Please think about that for a moment.
We will meet all kinds of people during our lives, people who are comfortable letting us know where they stand, as well as the politicians among us who will gladly smile at us, then plunge the knife in while looking us squarely in the back.
Really, it seems to me it’s all about taking the bad with the good, while hoping there is much more of the latter for everyone. I believe there is grace in recognizing this.
Trying to find a way to live our lives on our own terms can be a chore, of course, but it’s not at all worth giving up.
Until the pucks drop again…