As opposing National Hockey League players for more than a decade, Jason Smith and Richard Matvichuk had their share of on-ice battles over the years.
The two former pro defencemen are about to renew old acquaintances, this time as rookie head coaches in the Western Hockey League.
Smith’s Kelowna Rockets and Matvichuk’s Prince George Cougars will square off tonight at Prospera Place, the first of three meetings in four nights between the longtime B.C. Division rivals.
“I knew him well as a player, he’s a guy I played against a lot and a guy that relied on work ethic and good habits,” Smith said of Matvichuk. “He played in the NHL a long time because of that. The (Cougars) are going to have good work habits because of him, and we’re going to have to make sure we’re ready to counter their work level.”
The Cougars, who underwent a number of organizational changes in the off-season, opened the new campaign with a convincing two-game sweep of the hometown Victoria Royals.
The Rockets, who were down six players due to the NHL training camps, earned a split with Kamloops on opening weekend, suffering a 9-2 drubbing on Friday night before rebounding for a 5-1 home ice win Saturday.
The Rockets will have at least two reinforcements back for tonight’s game as defencemen Devante Stephens (Buffalo) and Braydyn Chizen (Minnesota) rejoined the team this week from NHL camps.
As of Tuesday, Nick Merkley (Arizona), Lucas Johansen (Washington), Calvin Thurkauf (Columbus) and Dillon Dube (Calgary) had yet to return.
While playing with a short bench created its share of challenges for the Rockets—particularly in Friday’s lopsided loss in Kamloops—captain Rodney Southam saw it as a good opportunity for the club’s younger players to get some much-needed experience.
“It’s a good feeling knowing we’re going to be eventually getting those guys back from camps, we know they’re going to come back and make us better,” said Southam. “But for right now, the guys who are here just have to care of business and keep things on track.
“It’s a chance for guys to play and prove themselves, show what they can do and play bigger than they usually do,” he added. “I thought the guys did a great job of doing that and bouncing back on Saturday.”
The Rockets and Cougars will get well acquainted over the next several days as the teams also meet for a doubleheader this weekend. The B.C. foes will square off again Friday and Saturday nights at the CN Centre in Prince George.
With three meetings in just four nights, Southam said it likely won’t take long for old hostilities to resurface.
“We’ve always had a good rivalry against them, since I’ve been here and many years before that…it’s always an interesting matchup,” added Southam. “They have quite a few returning players just like we do, so there will be some blood and sweat in this series. It should be fun.”
Face off tonight at Prospera Place between the Rockets and Cougars is 7:05 p.m.