(Volume 7) Yes, it’s here, but this week we’ll refer to it as the “late edition”. What with a rare Monday nighter played at Co-Op Place in Medicine Hat and my circle of life requiring our attention on the home front to be focused elsewhere, this weekly chronicle of news, notes, rants, and raves has been slightly delayed. As usual, read on if you dare – proceed with caution!
1. Prior to the Easter holiday weekend, the Medicine Hat Tigers announced the injury bug had taken rather a large bite out of the roster. Forwards Nick McCarry, Noah Danielson, and Caleb Willms, along with defenceman Luke Rybinski were all listed a week-to-week as the team headed into a three-game set to against the Calgary Hitmen. The absence of Rybinski, a 17-year-old rookie who has appeared in three games this season, is not likely to have as much impact as the three forwards. McCarry, Danielson, and Willms have played a combined 183 games and have become important interchangeable pieces of the puzzle in Medicine Hat. The Tigers’ depth was certainly put to the test and the group proceeded to win twice and lose once, albeit in a shootout. The youngsters benefited from plenty of ice time and they are developing in an environment where winning is becoming the norm.
2. Despite the injuries, the Tigers knocked off the Hitmen 4-1 on home ice Friday. The next night, Calgary scored two late goals that sent the contest into overtime, but the Tigers tallied with 17 seconds of extra time remaining for a 6-5 win. Monday, playing for the third time in four nights, Calgary put forth a concerted effort to avoid being swept and its key veterans – Sean Tschigerl, Riley Fiddler-Schultz, and Jack McNaughton – were big contributors in the 5-4 Hitmen victory. For the Tigers, rookie forward Oren Shtrom is beginning to emerge as an energetic forward with an extra gear in the attacking zone. The Arizona product tallied twice in the third period, his second goal sending the game to overtime. In the extra frame, the Tigers coaching staff sent out the trio of veteran defenceman Daniel Baker with rookie forwards Oasiz Wiesblatt and Tyler McKenzie on at least two occasions. Medicine Hat has compiled a 9-3-0-1 record with 11 games to play while Calgary improved to 6-6-2.
3. “I think development comes with winning,” said Tigers general manager and head coach Willie Desjardins when asked about the contributions of the youngsters in Medicine Hat. “I think you have to play to win all the time. If you’re just developing and you’re not trying to win, in my mind you’re not developing.” I found this to be poignant commentary, with so much of the narrative during this irregular season being focused on “development”. What a breath of fresh air to hear someone expand on the concept. There’s more: “You’ve got to try and win,” Desjardins said. “We play every game to try to find a way to win, but the good thing is those kids deserve the chance. We’re not giving it to them. They deserved it. They’ve played hard and that’s why we’re good to go with them.”
3. Among the leadership group in the Gas City is 19-year-old Corson Hopwo, off to a fast start offensively with 10 goals and six assists in 13 games. Hopwo is among the league scoring leaders. “I’m definitely trying to shoot the puck more,” Hopwo said after the Monday nighter. “With Willie’s help and my shot, I’ve tried to go into every game and shoot the puck more. That’s just been my mindset every game.” Hopwo has been skating alongside veterans Brett Kemp and Nick McCarry, but with McCarry sidelined, Shtrom has been inserted on the wing. “The 10-month break helped,” Hopwo added. “Building strength and quickness, I definitely went into the off-season wanting to get bigger and stronger and I think I achieved that.”
4. Former Tigers forward Derek Dorsett has landed back in Medicine Hat. A gritty presence in the WHL as a player, Dorsett also played over 500 games in the National Hockey League with Columbus, the New York Rangers, and Vancouver. “He’s a true Tiger, he’s been one of the best competitors we’ve ever had in our program, so it’s big to have him here,” said Desjardins this past weekend of Dorsett’s hiring. Dorsett joins assistant coach Joe Frazer on the Tigers staff. Director of Player Personnel, Bobby Fox has also chipped behind the bench this season.
5. Tigers supporters will not soon forget the impact Cole Sillinger made during his rookie year as a 16-year-old. While we haven’t seen him in black and orange this season, he’s enjoying success in the USHL with the Sioux Falls Stampede. In 29 games this season, which is his NHL Draft year, Sillinger has scored 22 goals and added 20 assists for 42 points, a plus-6 rating, and 39 penalty minutes. Sillinger was also a key member of the Hockey Canada group that convened in Medicine Hat and Swift Current for the 2019 IIHF World U17 Hockey Challenge. And once again, Hockey Canada has come calling for Sillinger as the 17-year-old power forward has been named to the roster for the upcoming 2021 IIHF U18 World Championship, scheduled for the state of Texas, April 26 to May 6. The tournament will be shared between the cities of Plano and Frisco.
6. A total of 10 WHL players have been summoned by Hockey Canada and that means they will not complete the 24-game schedule north of the 49th parallel. It’s a group of highly skilled players that includes a number of participants from the U17 World Hockey Challenge. Central Division fans will miss Dylan Guenther of the Edmonton Oil Kings, the first overall selection at the 2018 WHL Bantam Draft. And it should be noted that 15-year-old Connor Bedard of the Regina Pats is among the group. Coincidentally Bedard, the first player ever granted exceptional status by the WHL, will join Shane Wright on the U18 roster. Wright is the most recent OHL player to be granted exceptional status. For a complete list of the WHLers on their way to the Lone Star State later this week, you can view the press release by clicking right here.
7. I thought this was an interesting production. I watched it during the first intermission Monday at Co-Op Place. Sadly, it was shown to an absolutely empty building. Ryan Chyzowski is playing in his final WHL season, all of which have taken place in Medicine Hat. He is as productive off the ice as on the ice and has become a somewhat media-savvy young man – at least, I find him to be very poised in dealings with the media. I wanted to include access to this video snippet, which you can watch by clicking right here. The production can also be found on the WHL website. Chyzowski provides some interesting insights about family support and dealing with social media during Mental Health Moments, presented by RE/MAX.
8. The hits just keep on coming for the Kelowna Rockets. Upon reflection, I feel like things began to unravel around a first-round playoff series during the 2018 post-season when the Rockets were swept by the Tri-City Americans. During the last two or three weeks of that regular season, I’m not sure the veteran core was particularly engaged anymore. Many of us among the media horde have spoken about this since then and the timeline seems somewhat pivotal. On too many occasions, I’d look down from the media area seating back then and see one or two of the team’s key players sitting beside each other in the penalty box. There was an evident lack of discipline among the group, which surely knew opponents would be targeting each one of them down the stretch. After more than a decade of covering the Rockets, it was unusual for me to have to wonder about how this routine among the core group had emerged. When most of that core group moved on, the overagers and the elite skaters, I wondered what example the next wave had taken to heart. Both the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons were wrought with inconsistent play, coaching changes, and insurmountable major injuries, all occurring as the organization and the city of Kelowna tried to focus on preparation for the 2020 Memorial Cup. Then, along came the pandemic, which has had the impact of a wrecking-ball across Canada and junior hockey. When the Rockets were required to cease operational activities for 14 days last week due to a handful of positive COVID-19 tests, it came across to me as yet another gut punch, part of the seemingly extended pummeling the organization has encountered for so much of the recent past.
9. During my time in Kelowna covering the Rockets, one of the most polarizing players among media wags was forward Michael Farren. Kelowna acquired the Surrey, B.C.-native when it sent a 2020 third-round pick to the Saskatoon Blades on Oct. 11, 2018. Farren scored at a somewhat consistent pace to that point, collecting 75 points in 145 regular-season games for Saskatoon. However, while in the Okanagan Valley, Farren wasn’t able to crack the top-six forward group and ultimately chipped in with 27 points in 91 games before he was waived by Kelowna on Aug. 30, 2020. Farren, who will celebrate his 21st birthday April 19, was picked up by the Swift Current Broncos and in 12 games during this irregular season, he has tallied eight goals and seven assists. It’s encouraging to see some scoring success from Farren, a player who always seemed to leave a few of us wanting for more while I was on the Rockets beat in Kelowna. Farren has never played in a WHL playoff game. During his Kelowna days, he was very active in the community. But in hockey terms, this Vancouver area player certainly seems more at home and more productive when he is battling East Division teams across Saskatchewan.
10. With an eye on the future if the reports are true, it looks like the WHL is planning to move the start to the 2021-22 season back a couple of weeks. It was no April Fool’s Day joke when Paul Figler of DUBNetwork.ca penned a short piece last week following an interview on Vancouver-based radio station Sportsnet 650, where Kelowna Rockets general manager Bruce Hamilton suggested to Scott Rintoul that the scheduling adjustment could materialize. In these circumstances, DUBNetwork generally reaches out to WHL director of communications Taylor Rocca for comment or clarification – at least that’s what Figler does. With so much happening during the current “irregular” season, I know I don’t ever get too wound up if I don’t get an immediate response to my queries. But, I know I’m one of many looking forward to hearing from the league office this week.
(Glen Erickson is a long-time freelance writer with ties to the WHL over the past 35 years and has published over 200 articles for DUBNetwork. He covered the WHL extensively in Kelowna between 2005 and 2019, in addition to four CHL Top Prospects Games and a pair of IIHF World Junior Championships. Erickson provided coverage of Rockets home games for the Kelowna Daily Courier during the 2018-19 season, before relocating to Medicine Hat.)