If it were for almost any other reason, Nick Merkley wouldn’t mind taking a trip to sunny Phoenix in late February.
As it is, the Kelowna Rockets forward and Arizona Coyotes’ prospect will head south next week to undergo surgery to repair a damaged ACL in his right knee.
The Rockets announced this week that Merkley would miss the remainder of the WHL season, the result of an injury suffered Feb. 5 after a collision with Tyson Helgesen of the Spokane Chiefs.
“Obviously we have a good team and I was hoping to go far with them, but now that can’t happen,” said Merkley, who had 48 points in 43 games with Kelowna this season.
“It’s disappointing for sure, but I still plan to be part of it on the sidelines, try and be a leader off the ice and hopefully see the guys go on another long run.”
Following surgery, Merkley will spend a couple of weeks with the Coyotes’ training and medical staff to begin rehab and the road back to recovery.
The 5-foot-10 1/2, 188-pound Calgary native plans to make the best of an otherwise disappointing turn of events.
“I’ve got lots of support, family, friends and teammates, so I’m staying positive,” said Merkley, the 30th pick overall by the Coyotes in the 2015 NHL entry draft. “I have to work now on recovering fully, come back healthy for next season and continue my career…obviously I’m going to try and make it in Arizona, but if not I’ve got a great team to come back to in Kelowna.”
Merkley has been among the busiest junior players in the country since the summer of 2014, playing in 139 regular and post season games, suiting up for Canada at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial tournament, attending the NHL Combine in Toronto, as well the Canadian junior team’s evaluation camp last summer.
And while it’s not the kind of break he envisioned, Merkley said there may be some benefits in the extended time off.
“It’s been a long year for me,” he said. “It’s not a good kind of rest, I didn’t really want it this way, but I guess I’ll take the break, get rested and try and gain strength in other areas. I just have to make the best of it and look at it as a chance to improve other parts of my game.”
A player with Merkley’s talent and drive, Rockets head coach Brad Ralph fully expects the Calgary native to bounce back.
“Obviously it’s unfortunate for Nick, for a young man to deal with an injury that severe is tough,” said Ralph. “But we believe he’ll get through it fine and go on to have a great career.”
Since Merkley’s departure from the lineup, the Rockets have posted a 5-1-0-0 record.
And while Merkley will undoubtedly be missed, Ralph said his team has had plenty of experience this season in coping with adversity.
“We’ve been dealing with a lot of adversity this season with injuries and players at world juniors, and the guys have done a good job of handling the challenge,” Ralph added.
“It’s just a case of staying the course, believing in ourselves and relying on our depth to get us through.”
Kelowna (40-15-3-0) will play a home-and-home set with the Vancouver Giants (21-20-5-2) this weekend—Friday at Prospera Place and Saturday at Pacific Coliseum.
The Rockets will be without defenceman Gordie Ballhorn for the two-game set.
The 18-year-old from Wetaskiwin, AB was injured in Tuesday’s win over Red Deer and is sidelined on a day-to-day basis.