Rockets roster replete with 20s

WHL champs have one more over-age player than limit allows, decisions for management to make in coming weeks

The Kelowna Rockets' four over-age players (clockwise

If only Western Hockey League teams were granted an extra roster spot this season for 20-year-old players.

Then the Kelowna Rockets wouldn’t have any tough decisions to make come Oct. 10.

As is it, the defending WHL champs have four over-age players at training camp, one more than the league-imposed limit.

With goalie Jackson Whistle, and forwards Tyson Baillie, Gage Quinney and Cole Linaker all returning for their final season of major junior hockey, GM Bruce Hamilton can’t remember the last time the Rockets had this strong a class of 20-year-old talent.

“I feel for them if they all end up here, because one really good and valuable member of our team has to go,” Hamilton said. “From the other side, it’s been a long time since we’ve had four such high-end guys.

“It’s going to be tough decision that myself, Lorne (Frey) and the coaching staff will spend time working on what’s in the best interest of our hockey team, and what’s in the best interest of that player that we might have to move,” he added. “They’ve all been loyal and special to us, too.”

One development that would make Hamilton and the Rockets’ job that much simpler would be if one of the players lands a pro contract this fall. Whistle (Vancouver), Baillie (Calgary) and Linaker (Edmonton) are all headed to NHL training camps next week.

If not, the Rockets will have to make a choice within the next few weeks.

Baillie and Quinney both bring offence to the Rockets’ attack, while Hamilton calls Linaker “a heart and soul guy who plays in every situation.”

Whistle is a veteran stopper who could be a calming influence for what will be a very young Rockets’ defense this season.

Any one of the four would yield a pretty good return in a trade with another WHL team, should it come to that.

“I don’t know where we’re going to go yet, we’ll let things play out over the next few weeks and see what happens,” Hamilton added. “If one of them gets a pro deal, then I’m happy for them. Hopefully, whatever happens, we’ll have three of the four here.”

Linaker, for one, is pretty definitive about where he would like to spend his last season of major junior hockey—particularly with the Rockets expected to challenge for another WHL crown.

Still, the Edmonton native knows the decision is largely out of his and his teammates’ control.

“You can’t look to far into it, whatever management and the coaching staff wants, they’re going to do what they think is best,” said Linaker, who has 70 career points in 183 games. “I think each and every one of us just has to stick with what made us successful in previous years and the rest will take care of itself.

“It’s important to be confident,” added Linaker, “but at the end of the day, one of us will be leaving.”

Quinney, who scored 20 goals for the Rockets last season, including four in the Memorial Cup, is trying not to lose sleep over the club’s 20-year-old situation.

“It’s not something you can’t worry about too much,” said Quinney. “We already know one of us won’t be here, so you just play your game and hopefully it works out.”

Rocket Shots…The Rockets will open their WHL preseason schedule on Saturday night at home to the Prince George Cougars. Face off at Prospera Place is 7 p.m.…Eight members of the Rockets who are at training camp will head to pro camps next week—Jackson Whistle (Vancouver), Tyson Baillie and Tomas Soustal (Calgary), Justin Kirkland (Nashville), Rourke Chartier (San Jose), Nick Merkley (Arizona), Devante Stephens (Buffalo) and Cole Linaker (Edmonton).