Rockets’ Nolan Foote trades verbal jabs with a Kamloops Blazers player. Kamloops beat Kelowna in a tiebreaking game Wednesday night in Kamloops and will head to the playoffs. Kelowna’ season is over. (Marissa Baecker – Kelowna Rockets Images)

Season wraps for Kelowna Rockets

The Rockets came close to a playoff berth, but were bounced out by Kamloops in tiebreaker

The Kelowna Rockets’ season ended Wednesday with a 5-1 loss in a tiebreaker game against the Kamloops Blazers.

If Kelowna had won, they would have advanced to the WHL playoffs. But the Rockets fell short in what was a tough overall season.

“You never go into the year not planning to get into the playoffs,” said Rockets general manager Bruce Hamilton.

“It’s disappointing for our fan base.”

But with the off-season now in full swing for the Rockets, management’s attention will turn to the next season, when the Rockets will host the Memorial Cup for the first time since 2004.

The tournament includes the top three teams of the Canadian Hockey League and the host team. So the Rockets will look to compete against the league’s best in 2020.

“We’re switching into Memorial Cup mode and building our team for next year,” said Hamilton. “We’ll do what we need to do to upgrade our team, have our high-end talent back and go into the season (ready).”

The returning talent includes a majority of the Rockets’ 2018/19 core. Forwards Kyle Topping, Leif Mattson, and Nolan Foote led the Rockets in points this season, and are expected to return. Defenceman Kaedan Korczak and Lassi Thomson, both coming off great years for the Rockets, are also slated to return to the line-up next season. Seventeen-year-old goalie Roman Basran, though shaky at the end, was solid for most of the season, and will also return with a full year of experience under his belt.

The Rockets’ core had ups and downs throughout the season, and some players will be drafted at the 2019 NHL Draft in Vancouver.

Hamilton knows the team will need to come back with improvements.

“All of them have to work on fitness and certain parts of their games. They’ll get bigger and stronger,” he said.

“They’re all young men turning into men.”

Kelowna drew the fifth overall draft pick in the 2019 WHL bantam draft, their highest pick since 2007, and will use it to upgrade the team.

Fifteen-year-old Trevor Wong, the Rockets 2018 draft pick, rounds out the younger players looking to make an impact on next season’s roster alongside Alex Swetlikoff, Mark Liwiski, Michael Farren, and six other rookie prospects.

“Wong will be someone the fans will enjoy watching play as he progresses, and he’ll get every opportunity,” said Hamilton.

With rookies and draft picks coming onto the roster, the Rockets will lose their three overage players. Dalton Gally, Schael Higson and Matt Barberis, all defenceman are moving on to pursue hockey on the East Coast or at university.

Gally, who played 59 games for the Rockets after being traded from Medicine Hat at the beginning of the season, said he enjoyed every minute with Kelowna.

“I think overall it was really positive,” he said. “I came in and felt they really wanted me, and I learned a lot from coach (Adam) Foote. It was a great time, and (Kelowna) will always be in the back of my mind and in my heart for sure.”

Hamilton said the overage players carry teams, and it was one of the reasons the Rockets struggled at the beginning of the season, with no veterans like Gally stepping in.

“Adversity plagued us all-year round,” said Gally. “But I felt we got better throughout the season, especially the young guys. They learned a lot, as I did.”

Rockets fans may now have to wait through the summer until the start of next season, but with new players coming in, a year of experience under the Rockets’ core’s skates and the team ready to compete in 2020’s Memorial Cup, they can prepare for a pivotal upcoming season.

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