The Kelowna Rockets bus headed east this week with one conspicuously empty seat.
While head coach Ryan Huska works for Canada’s national junior team for the next month, assistants Dan Lambert and Ryan Cuthbert will assume the reins for the Rockets’ next nine games.
The duo’s debut at the controls couldn’t come at a much more challenging stage of the season as Kelowna opens a five-game, eight-day road trip Friday night in Red Deer.
On top of that, captain Tyson Barrie leaves Saturday for the Canadian junior selection camp, while forward Mitchell Callahan departs next week for the Team USA camp in New York.
“There’s no doubt it’s not going to be an easy stretch,” said Lambert, in his second season as an assistant with the Rockets. “But Ryan and I are going to share the duties, we’re going to get help from Kim (Dillabaugh), and we’re not going to re-invent the wheel. The plan is in place, the systems are down…we’ll just keep going in the same direction we would if Ryan (Huska) was here.”
Lambert will run the defense, Cuthbert will call the shots for the forward lines, while Dillabaugh will move down from the press box to the bench.
Kim Gellert will continue to provide support from above.
For Cuthbert, who joined the club’s coaching staff in 2007, helping guide the club in Huska’s absence presents both a challenge and an opportunity.
“It’s very exciting,” said Cuthbert. “Anybody that gets into coaching someday hopefully gets to be a head coach and this is a big part of the process.
“This is a bit of a run for Lambo and I to share the duties and to get some experience. Our whole coaching staff has input, so we’ll be relying on each other and working together. (Dillabaugh) has bench experience, so we can pick his brain a little, ask him about certain situations.”
Based on their experience and general hockey acumen, GM Bruce Hamilton expects the coaching staff to respond well in their interim roles.
“Those guys have all been around long enough to know how things work,” said Hamilton. “Ryan and Dan both want to be head coaches. It’ll be a good test run for them. I’d say our team is in pretty good hands.”
After Friday’s visit to Red Deer, the Rockets will stop in Edmonton, Medicine Hat, Lethbridge and Calgary, before breaking for Christmas on Dec. 18. The club’s next home action is Tuesday, Dec. 28 against Everett.
Rockets Shots…Defenceman Zak Stebner made his debut with the Rockets Wednesday in a 4-1 loss to the Swift Current Broncos. The club acquired the 20-year-old Saskatoon native from Tri-City this week in a deal involving bantam draft picks. To make room for Stebner, the Rockets released over-age defenceman Brendon Wall.