Merkley a shot in the arm for Rockets

Back from seven months of rehab and the camp of the NHL's Arizona Coyotes, Kelowna's WHL team welcomes skilled centre back

Centre Nick Merkley will play his first WHL game in eight months tonight when the Kelowna Rockets visit the Lethbridge Hurricanes.

When Nick Merkley takes to the ice tonight in Lethbridge, it will be eight months to the day since he last played a game with the Kelowna Rockets.

The 19-year-old centre, who suffered a season-ending knee injury last February, was returned to the WHL club this week from the camp of the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes.

“It’s good to be back,” Merkley said, while riding the team bus to Southern Alberta Tuesday morning. “Obviously, it’s tough getting sent back down, but I think it’s going to be good for me. I get to come back and play a big role with the team, and l’m looking forward to a good year with the guys. Hopefully, we can go a long way this season.”

Merkley’s return hasn’t come a moment too soon for the Rockets who have had trouble scoring this season, with just nine goals to show for their first five games.

President and GM Bruce Hamilton said while it may take a game for two for Merkley to fully reintegrate into the lineup, the Calgary native will supply a much-needed boost to the 1-4-0 Rockets.

“He’ll bring a lot of energy to our team, something that’s been lacking from our veterans so far,” Hamilton said of Merkley, who has 196 career points in 182 regular season games with Kelowna.

“It will be a matter of getting him used to being back here, he hasn’t been around this group of guys. It will be interesting to see how (coach) Jason (Smith) deals with him, to get him to play his game and not try to do everything,” Hamilton added.

“He’s coming off rehab, a pretty serious injury, so it’s a matter of continuing that rehab and building on it.”

Merkley’s 2015-16 season ended Feb. 5 in Kelowna against the Spokane Chiefs when he suffered a torn ACL to his right knee after crashing into the boards.

Seven-plus months of intensive rehab followed, including the last several weeks in Phoenix with the Coyotes’ medical staff.

The real test for Merkley came when he appeared in two exhibition games with the Coyotes last week.

“I felt good,” said Merkley, a first-round draft pick of the Coyotes in 2015. “To get that confidence back, mentally and physically, was huge. Not to be nervous about my knee and just go out and play, that was good for me.”

The Rockets will be without another key forward, Dillon Dube, for the next three to four weeks.

The 18-year-old centre is recovering from a sprained knee suffered during Calgary Flames’ camp.

Following tonight’s game in Lethbridge against the Hurricanes, the Rockets will be in Edmonton Friday, before wrapping up the three-game trip to Alberta Saturday in Red Deer against the Rebels.

Kelowna’s next home action is Friday, Oct. 15 against the Saskatoon Blades.