For 25 years Lorne Frey has been working behind the scenes in the Western Hockey League. He was on board in Tacoma when the Rockets organization took flight in 1991.
As the team’s head scout he was searching for players when the Rockets moved to Kelowna in 1995, continuing to build on a reputation as a sharp evaluator of talent
Often he was on the road, in hockey rinks, scouring the continent for the next Shea Weber, Josh Gorges or Tyson Barrie.
But Frey was thrust into the spotlight this week, honoured for more than 25 years of work in the Western Hockey League with its Distinguished Service Award.
“It’s very nice, a great honour,” said Frey. “I love hockey and love what I do. I feel very fortunate to be working in this business.”
At 60, Frey may be the elder statesmen of the WHL scouting fraternity but when it comes to finding talent, there may be none better.
“He’s a visionary in his field,” said Rockets general manager Bruce Hamilton. “I think this is a real special honour for Lorne. He doesn’t get enough credit.”
Frey’s ability to find talented players was ahead of his time. In 1989, as the head recruiter for the Swift Current Broncos, Frey would build his first Memorial Cup championship team.
It was built on skill at a time when big, bruising players were the norm around the WHL. Three of his defenceman—including Rockets assistant coach Dan Lambert—would score over 100 points in their championship year.
During his three years with the Broncos Frey would also be involved in one of the biggest hockey tragedies when in 1986, the Broncos’ team bus would leave the road, killing four players, one of which was Frey’s nephew.
When his time with Swift Current came to an end after three years, Frey’s phone began to ring. Five WHL teams were after him. But it was a call from Bruce Hamilton, who was still in the process of trying to get an expansion WHL franchise, that held the most interest.
“I knew Bruce from his playing days and he was scouting at that time,” said Frey, who had also coached both Gavin and Brent Hamilton with the Saskatoon Junior A’s.
“Lorne had done a great job in Swift Current recruiting players and I knew we needed a guy like him,” said Hamilton. “I knew what we were getting but who knew it would last this long?”
After four years in Tacoma, with a building located in one of the toughest areas of the city, the Rockets would move to Kelowna, and as Frey tells it, the rest is history.
Well, first the team had to get through four seasons in the cramped Memorial Arena.
But once the team moved to Prospera Place, things really started to click for the Hamilton-Frey combination.
“The first eight years we learned from our mistakes,” said Frey. “We used to settle for mediocrity. We’d make trades to try and get over the hump or into the playoffs. But once we got into this building we started developing our kids. I knew from past experience that you have to have a core group of 16 and 17 year olds to develop. You can look at all the teams that have won the Memorial Cup and they all have that core group that have been with their team.”
It’s now been 20 years and four trips to the Memorial Cup since Hamilton and Frey joined forces. In a business known more for change than for stability, it’s a remarkable record of longevity, of ups and downs and of two hockey guys sticking it out through thick and thin.
“We’ve become really good friends,” said Frey of his relationship with Hamilton. “We’ve made mistakes but we never blame each other. We have a lot of respect for each other. He’s left myself and our scouts alone to do our job and given me the confidence in going out to do what I have to do. The continuity we’ve had in being together for 20 years is why we’ve had success.”
“The reason why Lorne and I have been working together for so long is that we can argue and debate players all the time but when it’s done it’s done,” added Hamilton. “He likes a certain type of player and I like a certain type of player and he goes out there and finds them both.”
And with nearly 20 former Kelowna Rockets skating in the NHL and dozens more at different levels of pro hockey, that system of success is hard to argue with.