Rockets’ foursome eyes world juniors

Nick Merkley, Dillon Dube, Calvin Thurkauf and Tomas Soustal all hope to play for their respective countries at the 2017 tournament

Forward Nick Merkley is one of two Kelowna Rockets who will attend the Canadian junior team selection camp this weekend in Blainville

No offense to the Kelowna Rockets, but Nick Merkley and Dillon Dube hope Wednesday’s game against the Seattle Thunderbirds will be their last with the Western Hockey League club until the new year.

The two Rockets forwards are headed for Blainville, QC this weekend for the Canadian junior team’s final selection camp.

It will be Merkley’s second attempt at cracking Hockey Canada’s U20 squad for the world junior hockey championship.

The Calgary native made it to Finland for a series of pre-tournament exhibition games last year, before being sent home as one of Hockey Canada’s last cuts.

“I’m looking to do more than I did last year and hopefully I can make that team this time,” said Merkley, 19.

“I think the biggest thing for me is just focusing on the next game, not thinking too far ahead about making the team and just being in the moment.”

After suffering a serious knee injury last season, Merkley has been challenged in getting back up to full speed this season.

Rockets GM Bruce Hamilton said the skilled forward will likely have to adjust to a somewhat unfamiliar role to make Canada’s final roster.

“He’s going to get a good chance, but I think he has to pick up his game,” said Hamilton, who worked on Hockey Canada’s management team for the 2015 world juniors in Toronto where Team Canada won the gold medal.

“He’ll likely have to fill a role (Team Canada) needs, one he’s not used to, playing against some of the other team’s better players…a more defensive role.

“The severe kind of injury Nick had, it’s a long process coming back,” Hamilton added. “Hopefully, he’ll be back at the top of his game soon.”

Dube will be making his first appearance at the national junior program’s final selection camp.

As an 18-year-old, the Cochrane, AB native faces a bigger challenge in making the final roster, which is generally comprised mostly of older players.

The Rockets will very likely be without forwards Calvin Thurkauf and Tomas Soustal for a significant stretch of hockey over the Christmas season.

Thurkauf is expected to play for Switzerland and Soustal for his native Czech Republic at the IIHF World Junior Championship in Montreal and Toronto. The European duo will leave the club Dec. 12.

With at least two and quite possibly more key forwards out the picture for an extended period, the Rockets will be bringing in a number of reinforcements throughout December.

Recently acquired in a trade with the Regina Pats, forward Erik Gardiner, 17, will join the Rockets Dec. 13 in Medicine Hat.

Forwards 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 bring in defenseman Kaeden Korczak, 15, (Yorkton midget AAA) and Colum McGauley, 16, from the junior B Nelson Leafs.

Rocket Shots…

The Rockets (16-11-1-0) play their final home game before Christmas tonight against the Seattle Thunderbirds.

Face-off at Prospera Place is 7:05 p.m.…Kelowna kicks off a seven-game, 11-day road trip Friday night in Kennewick, WA against the Tri-City Americans…The Rockets’ first home action after the break is Tuesday, Dec. 27 against the Kamloops Blazers.