Lacking a complete lineup on most nights, and injuries and the flu bug taking their toll, the Kelowna Rockets could have been easy targets for opponents on their pre-Christmas WHL road trip.
Instead, the young Rockets hammered out six points in six games during their grueling 10-day Prairie tour, and displayed the kind of character, grit and resolve their GM had been hoping to see.
“They played good in every game,” general manager Bruce Hamilton said of the Rockets who went 2-2-0-2 on the trip. “The guys played their hearts out and, I think, deserved better. We could have easily had eight points or more, some things just didn’t go our way. (Assistants) Danny (Lambert) and Ryan (Cuthbert) did a great job, and found a way to get the guys ready to compete every night. They competed hard, and you can’t ask for much more than that.”
The Rockets best effort of the trip came in the finale, a 5-1 victory over Blades Saturday in Saskatoon. With the club minus seven regulars—due mostly to injury—veterans and rookies alike stepped up with a dominant effort.
And captain Colton Sissons showed why he’s considered one of the Western Hockey League’s elite prospects.
“He was our best player up front, overall,” Hamilton said of Sissons, who scored his 20th goal of the season against the Blades. “He’s brought his game up to a new level on this trip and in Saskatoon, he was relentless. He sent a message about what kind of player he is, he came to play every night and every shift. I think our fans our fans are going to enjoy watching him for as long as he’s here.”
With the club low on bodies, the Rockets summoned the help of forward Justin Kirkland, from Camrose, for last four games of the trip. Defenceman Stewart Coyle, from the KIJHL’s Siacoums Eagles, played Friday in Prince Albert and Saturday in Saskatoon. Hamilton said with young defenceman Madison Bowey and Jesse Lees away at the World U17 Challenge over New Years’, Coyle, 16, will rejoin the Rockets for several games after Christmas.
As for the work of the back end on the six-game trip, Hamilton said 17-year-old Texan Cole Martin, and Bowey, 16, were the Rockets best defensemen.
“People are just beginning to see what Martin is about, he’s kind of come from nowhere…he played through a virus and was great on the whole trip. Bowey has really come along way, too and is just getting better.”
After Christmas, the club is anticipating the return of defenceman Myles Bell who has been sidelined since November with a lower body injury, while 20-year-old forward Cody Chikie is close to a return after going down Nov. 25 with a shoulder injury.
Tyrell Goubourne (lower body) should be ready after the break, while the Rockets will continue to wait on F Spencer Main (head) and Colton Heffley (lower body).
Once the Rockets get closer to returning to relative health, Hamilton expects to be able to make a more accurate evaluation of where the team his headed, and whether any deals will be need to be made before the Jan. 10 deadline.
While their record doesn’t show it (14-16-2-3), Hamilton believes his team can still be very much a part of the picture in the B.C. Division and in the Western Conference playoffs,
“The Giants and Kamloops are ahead of us points-wise, but when we have everybody going, we think we’re going to be closer…but we’ll see where we’re at,” he said. “We’ll have to make a decision to see if we’re good enough.
“One thing we have is eight defencemen, and we’re not going to go with that many. We’ll likely need to do something there.”
While there has been some interest from other teams in acquiring Brett Bulmer, Hamilton said there’s been nothing, so far, offered of substance for the 19-year-old forward.
“We’re not going to be selling off, we feel we’re still in this, so if we make a trade is has to be something very special for us. We need something in return that makes us better, too.
“As I’ve said before, too, if you trade away players like Bulmer, your younger players don’t develop like they should. It would have to be a pretty special trade.”
Hamilton said Bulmer could yet be summoned this month by Canada’s national junior team. If injuries are an issue for Team Canada in Calgary, the 19-year-old forward is likely to be near the top of the call-list as a replacement.
With or without Bulmer, the Rockets will return to action Dec. 27 when they host the Spokane Chiefs.