10 Years of the Major Midget Hockey Team in Kelowna
As a 15-year-old rookie on the Okanagan Rockets, Tyson Jost has much more on his mind than his next shift.
A top 10 Western Hockey League bantam draft pick by the Everett Silvertips this summer and a Grade 10 student that is already being coveted by NCAA universities, Jost is one of only two 15-year-olds on the Rockets this season, the 10th season since the establishment of the B.C. Major Midget League. The league is governed by B.C. Hockey and operates outside of the realm of minor hockey with players between 15 and 17-years-old.
At one point during the BCMML's history, the league limited the number of 17-year-old players a team could carry. But there are no rules now and this season the Rockets will ice perhaps its oldest team since beginning operation in Kelowna, featuring 10 17-year-old players, eight 16-year-olds and a pair of 15-year-olds.
Some in the hockey world say those 17-year-olds would be better off developing at the junior level, while several players have opted to return to the Rockets for their final season of midget hockey for a chance to win a championship.
That elusive championship—the Okanagan Rockets have only won the BCMML title once and no team has ever won Canada's midget championship, the Telus Cup—is something that is motivating the Okanagan Rockets, both at the management and player levels.
For the past two school seasons, Tyson Jost took his education mostly through correspondence at the Pursuit of Excellence. He studied the core education courses for part of the school day and practiced hockey for the other part of his day.
It was enough to get him through Grade 8 and 9. But when the school bell rang at Kelowna Secondary School this year, Jost was among the new Grade 10s walking the halls of KSS, getting back into regular schooling and getting set for his first season in the BCMML.
"I did find the first few days of school a bit of a challenge but other than that I got back into the routine," said Jost this week, who like any Grade 10 student admitted to being distracted at times during the day. "At POE we would practice during the day and this year we practice at night. The whole day at school I'm waiting for practice and waiting to get back on the ice."
Jost is a bit of a new breed of Okanagan Rockets' player. Teams in the BCMML are based on regional boundaries with the Rockets drawing from Kelowna and the surrounding area. Jost came to Kelowna two years ago to attend the Pursuit of Excellence and his family moved to the area and decided to stay.
After playing both of his bantam years at POE, Jost decided it was time for a more traditional hockey experience, where he would face the pressures associated with playoff games and the chase for a national championship.
"One of the big reasons I came here was because of the league," said Jost. "It's great. You are playing two games every weekend and there is playoffs at the end of the year. That's the only thing POE didn't have was a solid league. I wanted to come here and be in situations like the playoffs where you're team could get knocked out."
Okanagan Rockets general manager David Michaud, in his fourth year managing the Rockets, says the academies and the general lay of the land in the hockey community, have forced the major midget program to make changes to attract players.
"I will give the academies all sorts of credit for making the Okanagan Rockets better," said Michaud. "We lost some players to them when I started this job. It forced me to say 'why don't these players want to come here?' We heard concerns about ice time and practice time and facilities and it made me evaluate what we were doing. We expanded our practice times. We built the dressing room and the coaches room and really started to build our program and eliminate people's objections."
As 15-year-old Jost got set to lace up his skates for another practice with the Okanagan Rockets this week, the well-spoken young man was looking forward to stepping back on the ice. In the future he will have to decide where he wants to play and at what level of junior hockey. He is learning a new school, a new team and as a young up and coming prospect, trying to balance the pressures of real life and hockey.
But when it comes time to put on the hockey gear and play the sport he loves, none of that matters.
"When I step on the ice....it's just freedom," he said. "I'm with my teammates and we're pushing each other and all the other stuff is pushed aside. I'm just trying to focus on getting better."
Longtime Kelowna hockey coaches Grant Sheridan and Ken Andrusiak had been coaching Kelowna's top midget hockey team for five years when B.C. Hockey came calling, asking them to step behind the bench in the BCMML when it began play in the 2004-05 season.
There was no regional system in place for top players, meaning a high level midget in Winfield or West Kelowna, couldn't come to Kelowna and develop with players of a similar skill. So while the Kelowna midget AAA team at the time was successful, when it played at high level tournaments across the country, there was no comparison.
"When we would go to premier scouting events in Prince Albert or Quebec or Calgary, the reality was you were going there knowing you had very little chance," said Sheridan. "Forming the BCMML was absolutely an enhancement of the midget program in B.C. It brought top players together and produced a top midget league in B.C."
But there were growing pains along the way. Sheridan and Andrusiak guided the Okanagan Rockets to the BCMML title in their second year and put together a 27-8-5 record in year three before being replaced behind the bench after three years. B.C. Hockey's official reason was they wanted to develop coaches as well as players.
"We found it a bit interesting that B.C Hockey would replace the coaching staff on our team and not others in the league," said Sheridan after the move that saw the Rockets lose all of its volunteers as well. "But we are proud of what we did. If you go back 15 years there was a ton of volunteer people who were pressing for the B.C. Major Midget League to happen. It was great to be part of because we took a good program and made it a better program and it's kept going. The program went in the right direction."
That direction this year is with an older team, heavy on 17-year-old players. Traditionally the teams that win the Telus Cup midget championships are older teams and BCMML teams have struggled to compete at the national level. That shouldn't matter if you are talking strictly about development, according to the owner of the Kelowna Rockets.
"I think the midget league should be 15 and 16-year-olds," said Rockets president and general manager Bruce Hamilton, whose whose son Curtis played a season with the Okanagan Rockets as a 15 year-old before moving up to play in the WHL. "To properly develop the 15 and 16 year-olds need to play against each other. To me 17-year-olds are juvenile players and should be playing juvenile or junior B. I'm looking at it purely from a development perspective."
The Rockets' Michaud says this year's abundance of 17-year-olds is part of the cycle of hockey and adds next year the team will likely be back to being a younger squad. But with the chance to ice an older team and try to compete not only in the BCMML but with the other Canadian provinces, Michaud says the time was right to ice an older club.
"We have some returning guys that were 16 years old last year but also some 17-year-olds that are new to the program because they see what we offer and see that our guys have a better than 50 per cent chance of moving to a higher level when they graduate," said Michaud. "If the WHL or the BCHL isn't ready for these kids when they are 17, we're here to bridge that gap."
As for Sheridan and Andrusiak, they remain together after bringing the junior B Kelowna Chiefs to the area four years ago, giving Kelowna and area hockey players more options than pretty much any other Interior city when it comes to high level hockey.
"A little centre our size and you now have four levels for players to play and that means there are at least 100 spots for kids to play in this area," he said. "There is no downside to having programs where different kids can play in different places. The biggest thing for me with the BCMML is the kids that have gone on to become good business people or gone on to become good hockey players. They have grown and developed out of the program."