Okanagan Rockets eye national prize
When Branden Wagner first suited up for the Okanagan Rockets in the summer of 2011, he didn't envision playing three full seasons with the BCMML team.
Nor did the 17-year-old captain expect he'd one day be competing for a Canadian midget hockey championship.
Wagner has happily embraced both scenarios, as he and his Rockets' teammates leave Sunday for Moose Jaw, Sask., site of the 2014 Telus Cup.
"It isn't something I expected when I first came to the team," Wagner said. "But to be with this team for three full years and to finally make it to a national championship, there's nothing more exciting. It's going to be a great experience."
Wagner and the Rockets will open the six-team national midget championship on Monday against the Quebec champion Grenadiers de Châteauguay.
Rounding out the roster of teams are the host Moose Jaw Generals, the Prince Albert Mintos, Toronto Young Nationals and the Halifax McDonald's.
With a full round-robin schedule and playoffs to follow, the last four teams standing will have played seven games in seven days.
Rockets GM David Michaud said the tournament format will be a test and an exercise in personnel management for every team.
"It will be a grind, so depth will be very important, we'll need everybody, one through 20," Michaud said. "We'll need both goalies, Brendan (Barry) and Reid (Kilburn) because the load is going to be heavy.
"The biggest advice I've got so far is a top-four finish, all you're looking for is to get into the playoffs," he added. "It's not worth it to empty the tank in the round robin, if you don't have to. You try and get a couple of wins early on and set yourself up in a good position."
Still, Michaud said points in a field of Canada's team top teams won't be easy to come by.
"You reach this level and you're not going to have an easy game," he said. "But we wouldn't want it any other way. You want to play and measure yourself against the best teams."
The Rockets haven't shied away from challenges at any point during the 2013-14 season. Okanagan knocked off the five-time defending B.C. champion Giants in their own building in the MML final, then went to Alberta and dumped the Canadian champion Red Deer Chiefs in the Pacific regional finale.
"I think anytime you go into Western Canada's toughest buildings and win, it gives you confidence," said Wagner. "The teams don't get any tougher than what we're going to see at nationals, but I still think we feel confident."
For Wagner, a national championship title would be special in so many ways—not the least of which would be sharing it with fellow third-year player, Gen Bryshun.
"Anytime you go to a national championship with a guy you battled with all these years, it's a great feeling," said Wagner. "Hopefully Gen and I can celebrate together with the rest of the guys, one more time."
The Telus Cup playoffs will begin with the semifinals on Saturday, April 26.
The final for the national title will be played 2 p.m. Pacific time on Sunday, April 27.