After lying dormant for much of the last decade, one of the Western Hockey League’s most intense rivalries appears to have been awakened.
There will be plenty at stake when the longtime B.C. Division foes, the Kelowna Rockets and Kamloops Blazers, face off Friday night at Prospera Place to open the WHL postseason.
With the Rockets dominating the majority of the last dozen seasons between the clubs, the rivalry had lost much of its edge.
After Kelowna had swept the first five meetings from the Blazers this season, it looked like perhaps nothing much had changed.
But Don Hay’s Blazers turned the tables by beating the Rockets three straight times to end the regular season season—including twice in Kelowna—3-2, 3-2 and 4-3.
Kelowna president and GM Bruce Hamilton expects his defending WHL champs will have their hands full with a rejuvenated Kamloops team.
“I’m looking forward to the rivalry getting back to what it used to be,” Hamilton said. “I’m a believer that any time you play a team that Don Hay coaches, you’d better get your boots tied up and your chin strap done up, because it’s going to be lots of work involved and they’re going to be very prepared.
“This is a great challenge for not only our hockey club but our coaching staff,” added Hamilton, “to get ready to play against not just a great team but a great coach.”
In addition to beating the Rockets three times in March, Kamloops closed out 2015-16 with nine straight wins overall, to finish third in the B.C. Division at 38-25-5-4.
The Rockets, on the other hand, went a pedestrian 4-4-1-0 over their last nine games.
Still, as any GM or coach will tell you, the playoffs are a whole new animal.
“It’s completely different,” Hamilton said of the postseason.
“Kamloops is on an upswing, they’re going to be out to prove their finish was worthy of something. From our perspective, they beat us three times in a row which hadn’t happened for a long time and they outworked us in some of those games, and I think our work ethic and preparation will be important in this series.”
While the Rockets could be considered the favourites based on their big-game experience, some believe the Blazers could have a psychological edge based on their recent success against Kelowna and a strong finish to the season.
Either way, Rockets’ defenceman Joe Gatenby is excited about the prospects of an intense and hard-fought series.
“It’s a huge rivalry between us and Kamloops, and they came in here and beat us the last couple of games,” said Gatenby, the Rockets defenceman of the year. “They’re a good team, not a pushover by any means. Some people have been calling us the underdog, so we’re going to relish that and be ready to go.”
Games 1 and 2 go Friday and Saturday nights in Kelowna, with Games 3 and 4 to go in Kamloops next Tuesday and Wednesday, March 29 and 30.