Four months ago today, no one could be blamed for wondering if the Kelowna Rockets would be able to salvage much at all from the 2010-11 Western Hockey League season.
The club staggered out to a 4-10 start and ended October dead last in the B.C. Division.
Oh, how times have changed.
Since the totally unexpected and unwelcome swoon, the Rockets have gone a robust 32-15-0-1 and, in the process, find themselves knocking on the door of their first division crown in seven years.
President and GM Bruce Hamilton said once the players began listening to head man Ryan Huska and the rest of the coaching staff, the club’s fortunes took a turn for the better.
“I think that first six weeks from training camp on, our coaches were really challenged by this group of guys and getting them to understand how hard they had to work,” said Hamilton. “A lot of them came back from last year thinking it was going to be easy, they were going to do things their own way, but they found out in a hurry that wasn’t going to cut it.
“Once the coaches got a handle on the players, they bought into what was being said and they understood what they needed to do,” he continued. “We’re still a long ways from where we want to be, but we’re starting to see some good things.”
That the Rockets could compete with the rest of the WHL quickly became clear when they went 10-1 in November.
Another sign that contending for a WHL championship isn’t out of the question came from the club’s recent road trip of the Central Division.
After a 4-2 loss in Kootenay, the club followed up with a pair of solid defensive-minded wins over Medicine Hat and Red Deer, two of the Eastern Conference’s elite clubs.
Hamilton said the Rockets don’t yet have the talent or overall size to run and gun with the league’s best—making work ethic, discipline and playing the system paramount to the team’s success.
“A lot of our talent is in our younger guys and they’re not capable of dominating games yet, the age, experience and strength isn’t quite there,” said Hamilton. “So that’s why we have to keep working hard and stick with the plan.
“That’s still going to be the biggest challenge down the stretch, to see if our smaller and younger guys will hold up. The master plan is probably to get bigger again in the future. But right now, this is what we’ve got and we’ll see if it’s enough.”
At least one area where the Rockets feel secure is in goal.
No. 1 man Adam Brown and back-up Jordon Cooke can take credit for more than a few victories this season.
“Goaltending has allowed us to win a lot of games this season,” said Hamilton. “Adam started out slow like a lot of the other guys, but he’s adjusted really well. It’s arguably the strongest part of our hockey club.”
Another reason for the club’s turnaround is the production from the club’s older talent, including overage forward Geordie Wudrick, the team leader with 36 goals.
Along with fellow 20-year-old Evan Bloodoff and rookie Colton Sissons, the threesome been one of the league’s most potent line combinations over the last month.
In addition to the solid and continually improving play of the 17-year-old Sissons, Hamilton points to defenceman MacKenzie Johnston as another young player who has pushed his game to a new level.
“We were waiting for him for a long time to come along, but just in the last month he’s really made some big strides. Two months ago, we were thinking that once (defensive prospect) Jesse Lees became available, we’d replace him. But (Johnston) has been playing a lot, in a lot of different situations and he’s done well.”
As much success as the Rockets have had the last four months, Hamilton said the remainder of the the regular season and the WHL playoffs will ultimately tell the tale of the 2010-11 season.
With 10 games remaining, the Rockets (36-25-0-1) hold a slim two point lead over the Vancouver Giants (33-24-1-4). The two teams will meet head on twice on the final weekend of the regular season.
“We feel like we’re going to have to have seven or eight wins to get there and take first,” Hamilton said. “Vancouver has a favourable schedule and we’re coming off a tough road trip, so it’ll be interesting to see how our guys handle it.
“The most important thing is to make the playoffs, the biggest test will come then. To me that really shows what a team is made of.”
The Rockets will visit the Kamloops Blazers Wednesday, then will host the Chilliwack Bruins Friday and the Lethbridge Hurricanes on Saturday.