Kelowna Rockets face off against the Vancouver Giants at Prospera Place, Kelowna, on January 26, 2020. (Marissa Baecker/Kelowna Rockets)

Kelowna Rockets face off against the Vancouver Giants at Prospera Place, Kelowna, on January 26, 2020. (Marissa Baecker/Kelowna Rockets)

‘Joy for the players’; Kelowna Rockets staff react to season restart

WHL players set to arrive in Kelowna, Kamloops March 13 to begin 48-day, 24-game season

Better late than never; an unexpected return of the 2020/21 WHL season has left hockey players and coaches, celebrating.

When Kelowna Rockets head coach Kris Mallette heard the news on March 2, the first feeling he felt was joy, then relief.

“Just joy for the players, (I’m) excited that the older guys, and our younger guys, are going to have an opportunity to get a few games in … just really thankful.”

In addition, the head coach is thankful the Rockets will be able to stay and play out of their home arena.

Other teams, like the Victoria Royals, Prince George Cougars and Vancouver Giants are not so lucky. With Kamloops and Kelowna as host cities, other teams will have to stay in hotels while battling 24 games over 48 days, starting March 26.

Three to four-game weeks, Mallette said will be, “one heck of a ride.”

READ MORE: B.C. WHL teams to hit the ice with Kelowna, Kamloops hub cities

Despite the new strict regulations, which require players to undergo lengthy quarantines and multiple COVID-19 tests before stepping on the ice, Kelowna players have been given the green light to stay with their billet families, and staff, with their families.

Staying in a hotel room in the team’s hometown for 48 days would have been difficult, Mallette said.

“As much as I love Kelowna, I still have a family. And knowing that I was in the town and unable to see them would be real tough. And just a hotel for two months is really, really draining.”

He admitted that along with excitement, some players are likely nervous, and for good reason. The only people allowed in to watch the games will be between 40 and 60 NHL scouts from around North America.

Club owner, Bruce Hamilton said the three senior players in their final season with the Rockets, are, “going to have to deliver the mail when they get their opportunity.”

This year, the Rockets will be a young team. Five 16 year olds and a 15-year-old first-round draft pick, have been added to the bench.

Hamilton said Kelowna’s own Alex Swetlikoff, a 19-year-old, 6’4” centre will be one to watch.

Due to travel restrictions, the club is still unsure whether Pavel Novak, a star winger from the Czech Republic, will be allowed to return to Canada in time for the season.

However Dillon Hamaliuk, currently in the San Jose Sharks’ camp, and Kaedan Korczak, currently in Las Vegas Golden Nights’ camp, are set to return in time to rejoin the team.

For Hamilton, the announcement brought about mixed emotions. When players hit the ice March 26, for many it will be the first time in almost 12 months.

“The kids have been off for a long time, and how fast they’re going to have to get up to speed … when you started this whole process you thought you might be off for six weeks, and bang it ends up 12 months,” he said.

That said, he’s thrilled to get the skaters back on the ice, and bring the Rockets back into the living rooms of locals. For too long he said, the Rockets have been out of sight and out of mind.

Now, it’s a scramble to tie up loose ends before the season begins; custom sticks and clothing are being manufactured in a hurry.

Players from around B.C. will start to arrive in Kelowna on March 13, and will finish in Kelowna on May 12.

READ MORE: 42 cases of COVID-19 in the Central Okanagan last week

READ MORE: Kelowna athletes, coaches, businesses honoured for achievements during pandemic

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