It’s a typically long and demanding journey, but you won’t hear Kelowna Rockets forward Rodney Southam complaining.
The Saskatoon native is back in familiar surroundings this weekend as the WHL team opens a six-game eastern swing Friday night in Regina against the Pats.
“It’s unreal, it’s exciting for me to get to play in front of my family and friends,” said Southam, 19, who also made the trip last year as a member of the Tri-City Americans.
“Not only in Saskatoon, but in other places too, a lot of the cities are close together, so that will be nice for me and the other prairie guys on the team.”
Playing a heavy pre-Christmas schedule on the Prairies—six games in just nine nights—is a significant enough challenge on its own. Doing it without four of your most productive forwards only adds to the test.
The WHL’s overall leaders will begin the journey minus Rourke Chartier, Nick Merkley, Tomas Soustal and Calvin Thurkauf, who are at their respective country’s national junior team selection camps.
The Rockets have called in forwards Alexander Uryga, 17, and Conner Bruggen-Cate as reinforcements.
“It’s going to be important that we have good starts in these games and that we stay disciplined,” said Rockets head coach Brad Ralph.
“With the firepower that we’re missing, we’re going to be relying a lot on our goaltending and our defense. Guys are going to need to step up.”
Ralph said how quickly the Rockets find their rhythm off the ice will be equally important to the club’s success over the next nine days.
“Every game is a challenge when you spend an extended period of time on bus, sleep patterns are different, you’re moving from city to city, it’s a lot of miles in a short period of time,” Ralph said. “That being said, the guys are close and it’s a chance to bond and work together as a team.
“It is what it is, so we’ll just need to buckle down and get the job done.”
While Southam and his teammates are looking forward to a little down time over the Christmas break, he said hockey needs to be the only focus until the Rockets play their final game of the trip on Dec. 19 in Saskatoon.
“You never want that creeping in while you’re still playing,” he said. “We have six more games left. When we play that last one, then we can enjoy some time off.”
The Rockets (22-6-1-0), who have won 13 of their last 15 games, head into the road trip in top spot in the Western Hockey League standings, three points ahead of the Calgary Hitmen.
Still, as well as the season has gone to date, Ralph said there’s no resting on what’s happened through the first 29 games.
“We’ve played well, we’ve won a lot of big games and we want to keep building on that,” he said. “But we can’t use what we’ve done as a crutch, we can’t be satisfied. We have to keep pushing to get better.”
The Rockets next home action is Monday, Dec. 28 against the Kamloops Blazers.