— Marissa Tiel
For the first time this season, the Kelowna Rockets are winners on home ice.
The Rockets beat the Swift Current Broncos 3-2 Tuesday night, making newly-minted head coach Adam Foote’s debut a victorious one.
The home team got off to a strong start, with Lane Zablocki logging his first goal of the season, sneaking the puck past Broncos goaltender Joel Hofer’s left glove 4:31 into the first frame.
Swift Current answered around six minutes later with Dalton Gally in the box for a cross-checking minor.
“We tried to stick to a plan and we got off it a little bit,” said Foote. “I think we got frustrated. Their goalie really kept them in it, I felt, the first 10 minutes of the first period, gave them a bit of life and I felt we might have tried to press a little too much.”
With the game tied 1-1, Kelowna’s Kyle Topping scored his fifth of the season at 7:27 in the second frame.
The lead was short-lived as the Broncos scored one of their own 16 seconds later to tie it up again.
Jack Cowell got his second of the season just over halfway through the second period, the eventual game-winner.
Gally, Erik Gardiner, Kaedan Korczak (2), Conner Bruggen-Cate and Mark Liwiski all logged assists in the game.
“The effort was there,” said Foote, “and guys tried to do what we asked.”
The win at home marked a first for the team at Prospera Place this season.
“It’s so much fun to win at home in front of the crowd,” said veteran forward Topping. “We wanted to give them a nice win tonight and I thought we were really good as a group.”
The Swift Current Broncos were at the end of a six-game road stint. The 2018 WHL Champions have struggled this season with only a single win.
The game was the first for Foote behind the bench after being named head coach Tuesday morning.
“I’ve been on a bench before, that’s for sure, but it’s fun to see those kids look back and ask questions,” he said. “It’s different than the pros. They really care. They don’t want to let you down.”
Foote wasn’t too happy about having a game on his first night as head coach. He’d only had one practice with the team, but was confident in goalie James Porter’s abilities.
“I think Porter kept us in it,” said Foote. “He made some big saves at the end.”
The Rockets had to kill a four-minute high sticking penalty late in the third period to hold on to win.
Foote was impressed with how his team killed penalties, noting several players sacrificed their bodies to block shots.
“I love the character and the will to block shots,” he said.
Foote’s appointment to head coach comes a day after the Rockets announced they were parting ways with former head coach Jason Smith.
Smith was hired before the start of the 2016/17 season and spent two full seasons as head coach. He led the team to a 45-22-5-0 record in his first year and a 43-22-5-2 record last season.
“Anytime you let someone go that is the quality of Jason Smith it’s very tough, however, the success of our hockey club ultimately falls with myself and I feel at this time we need to go in a different direction,” said Rockets GM Bruce Hamilton in a news release Monday morning. “Jason is just a wonderful person and we want to thank him for his time here.”
The announcement came a few weeks after the club was named as 2020 Memorial Cup host.
“Because we host the 2020 Memorial Cup, we know a number of personnel moves will have to be made,” said Hamilton. “We are confident Adam will be able to help us move forward, not just this year, but next season also.”
The coaching change was a surprise to the players.
“We weren’t expecting this. Gator (Smith) was a great guy and a great coach,” said Topping, who has shared ice time with both of Foote’s sons, Cal and Nolan as a Rocket.
He said the transition has been manageable as Foote knows the players.
“With Adam coming in, the one thing I noticed and a couple of the guys have been talking, is he’s familiar with us and obviously with both Footers (Cal and Nolan) playing here, he’s watched almost every game and he knows us personally and he knows our style of play.”
Foote, now 47, had a 19-year career in the NHL, logging 308 points (66 goals, 242 assists). In his first season in the NHL, he amassed 168 penalty minutes and would go on to log many more before his retirement.
He was drafted 22nd overall by the Quebec Nordiques in 1989.
The former captain of the Colorado Avalanche and Columbus Blue Jackets was a gritty stay-at-home defender. He won two Stanley Cups with the Avs in 1996 and 2001 and won Olympic gold with Team Canada at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City.
Most recently, Foote has been a defensive coach with the Avs.
The Foote family has close ties with the Rockets organization. Nineteen-year-old Cal played three WHL seasons with Kelowna and was selected in the first round of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft by the Tampa Bay Lighting. He currently plays in the AHL with the Syracuse Crunch.
Younger brother Nolan, 17, is an active member of the Rockets, an assistant captain who is widely considered a first-round 2019 NHL Entry Draft pick.
In his first press conference Tuesday morning, coach Foote addressed the question of coaching his son.
“I have to feel safe at home and Nolan has to feel safe at home. He’s going to have a bad day and cost us a game; I hope he never does, but chances are, it may happen and he’s gotta come home and not be holding that. I’m not going to talk about it. I’m going to be dad at home,” he said. “I can’t skate him harder because he didn’t put his dishes away either.”
Foote said he respects Smith, also a former NHLer, as a player.
“He taught my kids a lot. They loved him. He treated them really well.”
The Rockets will have a few days at home before they suit up for their next game against the Prince George Cougars Saturday night at Prospera Place.
These next few days will be a welcome break for the Rockets as they recover from the personnel changes and build chemistry with the new coach.
“It’s huge. I think you look at the whole change, our coaching staff, the emotions that went on with everybody. I think everyone felt overwhelmed in the last 18 hours and it’s going to be nice to get some flow, get some practices and maybe not try to cram too much too soon down them,” said Foote. “It will be good for our team.”
Foote said the coaching staff won’t give the team too much to work on, but the neutral zone is on the list.
“Everyone is a little overwhelmed with the change,” said Foote. “They’ll be a little tired tomorrow, so we won’t throw too much on their plate.”
Topping is hoping to ride the momentum from this home win.
“We’ll get in a nice groove with some practices and a lot of time off,” he said. “We’re going to work on some things and be ready for Saturday.”
The Rockets, who improved to 5-10-0-0 host the Prince George Cougars (5-6–0-1) Saturday. Puck drop is 7:05 p.m. at Prospera Place.