Kelowna's Major Midget hockey team heads to ninth season as major midget hockey develops
Time has faded the memories a little, but Kelowna Minor Hockey product Brendan Ellis still remembers the 2005-06 season for the Okanagan Rockets major midget hockey team.
It was just the second year of the fledgling B.C. Major Midget Hockey League and Ellis and the Okanagan Rockets had completed a pretty good regular season, finishing third in the 11 team league consisting of clubs representing different regional areas of the province.
The Rockets featured 10 15-year-old players, several of which were from Vernon and Penticton as well as Kelowna. In the playoffs the Rockets knocked off the Thompson Blazers and then the Vancouver NorthWest Giants to claim the first and only championship banner the Rockets have ever won in the league.
"We were alright during the year," says Ellis, a 6-foot-3 defenceman heading into his third season of NCAA hockey at Merrimack College. "But by the time the playoffs came around we were rolling. We definitely peaked at the right time. We weren't supposed to win it and we did."
Ellis and the rest of the 2005-06 Okanagan Rockets will be honoured this year as the Rockets roll out an alumni wall at the Capital News Centre that will honour players that have suited up for the team over the years.
Along with the championship team, the Rockets will feature many of its players who have moved on to higher levels of hockey. Chief among those players will be the only three Okanagan Rockets alumni ever to be drafted into the NHL: Edmonton draft pick and former Team Canada World Junior player Curtis Hamilton along with brothers Kyle and Cody Beach.
"I think it's important to recognize the volunteers, coaches and players that have come before us and helped lay the foundation of this program," says current team manager David Michaud. "It's about creating a legacy. I want the kids who walk into CNC to see who played for us. As a group we want to work hard to recognize our success and draw attention to it."
While winning the BCMML title has turned out to be a pretty tough gig, even tougher is the battle major midget teams have when they win the province of B.C. and have to face teams in Alberta to try and advance to the Canadian championships. Traditionally B.C. has lagged behind Alberta and Saskatchewan when you compare the province's top midget leagues.
In 05-06, the Rockets faced the Calgary Buffaloes featuring a 17-year-old Jordan Eberle. Now a star for the Edmonton Oilers, Eberle would score seven goals combined in back-to-back 8-3 wins over Okanagan, ending the team's season.
One of the original theories behind the B.C. Major Midget League was to provide a place for talented midget hockey players to play while keeping them closer to home as opposed to moving away from home to play junior hockey at a young age.
Unlike in Saskatchewan, where major midget teams are mostly privately or community owned, B.C. Hockey runs the BCMML, decides who the coaches are and controls much of the decision making from its central office.
The first coaches B.C. Hockey hired were long-time Kelowna coaches Ken Andrusiak and Grant Sheridan, who delivered the championship in the team's second season.
"The original concept of the major midget league was pretty darn good," says Andrusiak. "The league was going to sell all kinds of advertising, everything was going to be paid for and there was going to be enough money to pay coaches. The problem was nobody had any kind of autonomy."
To help offset costs of playing for the team Andrusiak sold sponsorships during his time at the helm. It was a move that ultimately led to the league's decision to replace the pair behind the bench for the 2007-08 season, according to Andrusiak, now the head coach of the Kelowna Chiefs junior B hockey program.
"The most successful midget league on Earth is in Saskatchewan," says Andrusiak. "There are 12 teams, all individually owned and operated. Some are private, some are community owned and some are attached to schools. They run that league like the WHL. They are very successful and they produce a lot of players. The way it's run here out of the central office everyone has to be the same. There is no autonomy."
According to sources, revenue sharing amongst the teams within the league continues to be something that is discussed at league meetings although B.C. Hockey appears to have loosened its grip on individual teams.
For the past three seasons Rockets manager David Michaud says he has been able to operate with autonomy but admits that there is talk at the league level of sharing those monies amongst the teams that are struggling.
"We work hard within the corporate community to try and bring in sponsorship money," says Michaud. "We have sponsorships with hotels and for our bus, a couple rink boards, a web site. There are opportunities to generate revenue. The stronger programs in our league need to show the weaker ones how to succeed as opposed to giving them a hand out."
The number-one league-wide sponsorship deal is with the Western Hockey League as the WHL provides money, jerseys and allows its branding to be used in the BCMML.
Kelowna Rockets president and general manager Bruce Hamilton sits on the B.C. Amateur Junior Council and says giving teams independence has been one area where the league has changed for the better.
"It's taken awhile for the teams to get some independence from B.C. Amateur," says Hamilton. "I think that's imperative. They have to do some fundraising on their own. They have to work at it. The parents make a huge financial commitment for these kids to play and the teams still have to raise some money. I've watched this league evolve and I think B.C. Amateur has learned they have to let each organization have some independence on how they run their teams."
So, heading into year number nine for the BCMML, the league continues to evolve and most importantly is giving hockey players the chance to move up to higher levels. According to the Okanagan Rockets, nearly 50 per cent of the players that have played with the Rockets since 2005 have gone on to play major junior or junior A hockey. On the ice the team has had its share of success and failure. But that is sports. Off the ice the Rockets continue to be a leader within the league.
"If you play for the Okanagan Rockets you basically have a one-in-two chance of moving to a higher level," says Michaud. "We are a stepping stone to get to the next level. I don't think most people give us credit for our place in the hockey landscape. But hopefully that's changing and people are starting to realize the value of our program."
The Okanagan Rockets open its largest training camp ever this weekend. For more on the team turn to the front of the Capital News sports section.