It will be arguably the toughest, most demanding stretch of hockey the Kelowna Rockets face this season.
Still, with seven road games in 10 days and several key players out of the lineup, head coach Jason Smith said it’s the kind of challenge his club can only grow from.
“It’ll be exciting, it’s a great opportunity to really grow as a group,” said Smith. “It’ll be a great challenge for our group to step up when we’re losing some players.
“I think there are guys that will expand their roles a little bit,” he continued, “you’ll get some new players in the lineup that are looking to prove themselves and have an opportunity to make an impression.”
The Rockets will begin their pre-Christmas journey Friday night in Tri-City without Nick Merkley and Dillon Dube. The two forwards are headed for Blainville, QC this weekend for the start of the Canadian junior team’s evaluation camp.
Then on Monday, Kelowna will lose Calvin Thurkauf (Switzerland) and Tomas Soustal (Czech Republic) who will join their respective country’s programs in preparation for the world junior hockey championship in Montreal and Toronto.
Those who make their country’s final rosters won’t rejoin the Rockets until the new year.
To help fill the void, the Rockets will be bringing in a handful of young prospects throughout December.
Recently acquired in a trade with the Regina Pats, forward Erik Gardiner, 17, will join the club Dec. 13 in Medicine Hat.
Liam Kindree, who is second in the BCMML in scoring this season with the Vancouver Northwest Giants, and Ted Brennan, from the junior B Saanich Braves, will also be added to the roster.
After Christmas, the Rockets will summon defenseman Kaeden Korczak, 15, (Yorkton midget AAA) and Colum McGauley, 16, from the junior B Nelson Leafs.
The Rockets (17-11-1-0) head out on the road playing some of their best hockey of the season. Thurkauf scored his first career hat trick Wednesday in Kelowna’s 6-1 win and thorough domination of the Seattle Thunderbirds.
Thurkauf said when the Rockets are working hard and playing smart, they’re a hard team to handle.
“It always comes down to our team effort, our compete level,” said Thurkauf, who has 12 goals this season. “Everybody competed really hard and we won in the end.”
The club’s work ethic and stamina, both mental and physical, will be put to the test over the next 10 days, which kicks off with four games in a five-night span.
General manager Bruce Hamilton said how his club copes with the rigors of the trip will say a lot about the Rockets’ true identity.
“It’s where we find out about character and heart,” Hamilton said. “We see how the coaching staff deals with the guys, it’s always the toughest time of year.”
“The front end of it is pretty tough, with Medicine Hat (Dec. 13) being the big test. If we can get through, play well and get a few wins, then we should be in good shape. We have 21 home games after Christmas.”
The Rockets next home action is Tuesday, Dec. 27 against the Kamloops Blazers.
Parnell steps aside…
After 7 1/2 seasons in charge of team’s media relations department, Kevin Parnell is stepping away from the Kelowna Rockets.
Parnell, who was also a reporter during that time with Black Press, has moved into his new role as managing editor of the Kelowna Capital News.
With the Rockets, Parnell managed the WHL team’s web site and social media platforms, while also performing various other functions related to media coverage, events and communications.
“We are thrilled that Kevin has received a great opportunity and we are very excited for him,” said Rockets GM Bruce Hamilton.
Kevin Bain, who joined the organization as an intern this season, will step into the Rockets’ media relations role for the remainder of the season.