Ballhorn consumes key minutes on Rockets D

Overlooked as a midget and junior A player, 19-year-old defenceman has turned into a steady defender in the WHL

Kelowna Rockets defenceman Gordie Ballhorn will head to Traverse City

Gordie Ballhorn knows what it’s like to fly under the radar.

At 15, the Westaskiwin, AB native was passed over in the Western Hockey League’s bantam draft.

At 17, while playing with the Alberta Junior Hockey League’s Whitecourt Wolverines, Ballhorn had yet to generate much interest from major junior clubs.

That is until Kelowna Rockets assistant GM Lorne Frey received a tip from a fellow scout in the spring of 2015 and decided to give Ballhorn a call.

“Lorne had heard about me through the grapevine that I wasn’t with a Western Hockey League team, and he called me one day after the (2014-15) season,” said Ballhorn, 19. “I kind of had my mind set on going to the NCAA, but that call changed things.

“My family and I thought we should give it a shot in Kelowna and I’m happy we did. It’s worked out well.”

As for the Rockets, the feeling is clearly mutual.

It didn’t take long for Ballhorn to get up to speed in the WHL in 2015-16, quickly moving into a top-four role and playing increasingly crucial minutes for the Rockets as his rookie season wore on. Assistant coach Kris Mallette said landing a player of Ballhorn’s quality—both on and off the ice—was a stroke of good fortune.

“It’s not often you find a guy who falls into your lap like that,” Mallette said. “We were fortunate enough to have him come out here and take a look and he liked what he saw.

“He played a lot of big minutes for us, he played vital role in our penalty kill, and he logged a lot of ice time against the other team’s top guys,” Mallette continued. “He’s a vocal leader, he does what’s asked of him and he goes about doing things in a professional way. He’s very open and outgoing and that bodes well for our room.”

Ballhorn played much of last season with 17-year-old Cal Foote and Mallette envisions the two pairing up again as the one of the club’s top two units in 2016-17.

With defensive stalwart Joe Gatenby being dealt to Kamloops prior to the season, Mallette said Ballhorn will be depended on even more to help fill the void.

With a year of major junior under his belt and now as one of the older players on the club’s defensive corps, Ballhorn is ready to take on the added responsibility.

“With that first season behind me, it’s a way better situation, I know what to expect and I can go out there right away and get after it,” Ballhorn said. “I’d like to improve this year as much as I did last year, take on a bigger role, maybe get some more power play time, and just try to take on more of a leadership role.”

Ballhorn’s play last season led to more than just praise from the Rockets coaching staff and his teammates.

The 6-foot-1, 200-pound blue liner is headed to Traverse City, Michigan next week for his first NHL rookie camp with the Dallas Stars.

“I’m excited about it,” said Ballhorn, who leaves Sept. 13 for Traverse City. “It’s my first experience in pro hockey and I’m just planning to soak it all in.

“Coming to Kelowna definitely helped me get this chance,” he added. “I have no regrets about coming here, that’s for sure.”

Rocket Shots…The Rockets assigned forwards Liam Kindree and Ted Brennan, and defenceman Kelvin Hair this week to their respective junior or midget clubs. Kindree will rejoin the BCMML’s Vancouver Northwest Giants, Brennan heads to junior B in Saanich, while Hair joins the Okanagan Hockey Academy’s junior prep team. The moves leave the Rockets with 24 players on the roster…The Rockets continue their WHL preseason schedule this weekend with a home-and-home set against the Kamloops Blazers. The teams will meet Friday at Prospera Place with a 7 p.m. face off.