Forward Justin Kirkland and goalie Jackson Whistle chat prior to a team practise this week at Prospera Place.

Rockets veterans motivated for extra step

Just one banner missing from last season, as Rockets kick off 2015-16 campaign at home Friday

Tyson Baillie and Jackson Whistle count themselves among returning Kelowna Rockets who will be thrilled to see a trio of new banners raised to the rafters on Friday night at Prospera Place.

It’s the conspicuous absence of the fourth—the Memorial Cup banner—that will serve as motivation for the Rockets throughout the 2015-16 campaign.

The B.C. Division, Western Conference and WHL championship banners will all be hoisted prior to Friday’s game vs the Kamloops Blazers.

And while he plans to enjoy the moment, Baillie assures his attention will quickly turn to another matter.

“It’s going to be really nice to reflect on last season on what we accomplished,” said Baillie, one of four over-age players on the team’s roster. “But as soon the puck drops, we need to turn the page and get the season off on the right foot.

“We wanted that big white banner, the Memorial Cup banner, and didn’t get it.” he added, “We have another great shot at it, we have a great team this year, so that’s our goal.”

As a fellow 20-year-old preparing for his final season, Whistle is on precisely the same page as Baillie, as the Rockets look to make amends for their season-ending loss to Oshawa in the Memorial Cup final.

“I’d even say we’re more motivated than last year,” Whistle said. “After being there, seeing what it takes to get there, then the disappointment of coming up short, the feeling of losing in overtime and seeing (Oshawa) celebrate…that’s the feeling you want.

“It’s what we talk about all the time, we want to get back there.”

And with a solid corps of returning players and a compliment of skilled newcomers, GM Bruce Hamilton expects his team to challenge for a second straight trip to the Canadian Hockey League championship.

“I think this team has got as good a chance, probably a better chance right now than at the same time last year,” Hamilton said. “We have an opportunity to be one of the top teams in the league and we certainly expect that, our fans expect it, so we’re looking forward to it.”

While the Rockets will be a little green on defense to start the season, Hamilton said from back to front, the defending WHL champs are well-equipped.

“We have as good a goaltenders as there are in the league,” he said. “Defensively it could be a little challenge early because we’re young, but that will iron itself out, if we need to make moves, we would do that in time.

“Up front, we really like where we’re at, maybe as deep a team as we’ve ever added,” Hamilton continued. “We don’t have a (Leon) Draisaitl, but we’ve got (Nick) Merkley, (Rourke) Chartier, (Tyson) Baillie, (Dillon) Dube, (Justin) Kirkland…all real good players.

“I think we’re going to score a lot of goals and that’s what the fans love.”

The Rockets head into opening weekend without the services of Merkley.

The team’s leading scorer from last season is expected to be sidelined for several days with an upper body injury suffered while at Arizona Coyotes’ rookie camp.

The Rockets will play three games in as many nights, as they visit the Blazers Saturday, before closing out the weekend with a game Sunday in Vancouver against the Giants.