A year ago, Jackson Whistle and Nick Merkley were in the throes of helping their teammates march towards a Western Hockey League championship.
In the spring of 2016, the two Kelowna Rockets veterans can only watch their team’s playoff run from a distance.
Whistle, the club’s No. 1 goaltender, and Merkley, the Rockets’ leading point producer from last season, are both in the process of recovering from season-ending injuries.
If their respective rehabs go as planned, both players hope to be fit and ready for the start of the 2016-17 season.
Whistle, whose WHL and Rockets’ careers are officially over, will try to land a pro tryout in the fall. Failing that, the 6-foot-1, 190-pound netminder may look at catching on with a CIS program.
Still, with a long road to recovery in front of him, Whistle is resisting the temptation to look too far ahead.
“It’s tough,” said Whistle, who played his last WHL game on Dec. 30. “Obviously I have lots of time to think and that’s not always a good thing.
“But I’m trying not to worry too much about the future, and more about getting better, rehabbing properly, staying in shape and eating healthy. It’s a long process so I have just have to be patient and stay positive.”
Merkley, who hasn’t played since Feb. 5 after injuring his knee in a game against the Spokane Chiefs, underwent surgery last month in Phoenix and said he’s making steady progress.
While missing the playoffs and not being with his Rockets teammates marks the low point his career, the skilled forward is staying upbeat about the future.
“These things happen in hockey, and obviously you just have to put it away and focus on getting better for next year,” said Merkley, who plans to travel from Calgary to Kelowna next week to join his teammates in a support role for Games 3 and 4 against Victoria. “It’s hard being out, there’s no time of the year that I love more than the playoffs.
“I’m still supporting the guys and will be watching them right to the end. It’s not the same as being with them all the time and playing, but it’s still better than not being involved at all.”
Merkley said he’s been getting plenty of support from family, teammates and fans during his recovery, giving him a little extra motivation to come back next season as strong as ever.
The same goes for Whistle, who has been deluged with encouragement, particularly from the Rockets’ faithful.
“The support from the fans has been awesome, on Facebook, text messages, Instragram, it’s really been overwhelming,” Whistle said. “It guess it just shows the impact I had with them in the time I was here, and I know they had a great impact on me. It’s been a special time for me, playing here.”
The Rockets are in Victoria tonight to take in the Royals in Game1 of the WHL Western Conference semifinal playoff series. Game 2 goes Saturday in Victoria, while Games 3 and 4 will be played next Tuesday and Thursday in Kelowna. Face off both nights at Prospera Place is 7:05 p.m.