Jason Smith has yet to conduct a practise with the Kelowna Rockets.
But there’s little question about how the new head coach expects his team to play during the 2016-17 Western Hockey League season.
“What we’re going to stress is that this is a team that’s going work and compete for 60 minutes,” said Smith, who takes over the post from the departed Brad Ralph. “We’ll be a team that plays with pace, and plays the whole rink.
“You’re not going to just be an offensive player, you’re going to need to do all the things necessary to be well-rounded player, and help the team be successful.”
Smith, who arrived in Kelowna earlier this week, will oversee his first training camp as bench boss of the Rockets beginning next weekend at Prospera Place.
The 42-year-old Calgary native comes to the Okanagan after two seasons as an assistant coach with the NHL’s Ottawa Senators. Prior to that, the Calgary native played 15 seasons in the NHL, including stints as captain of both the Edmonton Oilers and Philadelphia Flyers.
While he has previous experience as a WHL player and worked in the development of junior-aged players with the Senators, Smith expects there to be a considerable learning curve in his first coaching assignment in major junior.
That’s where Kris Mallette and Travis Crickard will come in, both of whom are returning for their third seasons as assistants with the club. Smith said coaching the Rockets will be very much a collective effort.
“It’s going to be important that we work as a staff,” Smith said. “Everybody needs to have a valued opinion, we need to share our thoughts and have discussions to come up with the right answers. One thing I learned in pro hockey is that everyone needs be part of what you’re doing, all the coaches, the trainer…you need to work as a team.”
Despite the departure of some key players from last year’s club, there will be—as has become tradition in Kelowna—high expectations of the Rockets.
Led by the likes of Nick Merkley, Lucas Johansen, Dillon Dube and Cal Foote, Smith likes the hand he’s been dealt.
“It’s exciting,” he said. “Looking at the roster, there are a lot of positive things to build on. Every player brings something to the table, and it’s important that we look to grow each player’s game. That means teaching, putting in extra time, and helping them grow, not only as players but as people.”
As for expectations in his first season in Kelowna, Smith’s are no different than the organization’s.
“We expect to win games and have positive results,” he said. “When you start of every year, you have the outlook of being the best team and you strive for that.
“It’s the same in every season in every league, in that things aren’t always going to go your way,” he added. “If you have belief in the structure, in your systems, and in what you’re doing then you’re going to work through those tough times and be successful.”
Smith will watch the Rockets’ rookie camp from a distance next week, before taking to the ice for the start of main training camp on Saturday, Aug. 27.
Headlined by first-round bantam draft pick Kade Korczak, close to 80 players will take to the ice next week for the Rockets’ smallest rookie camp yet.
On-ice sessions will run from Tuesday through Friday at Prospera Place.
Korcak, a defenseman from Yorkton, was Kelowna’s first pick, 11th overall this May.
Among other draft picks to watch will be centre Deegan Mofford from Rocky Mountain House, AB, and forward Dallon Wilton from Beausejour, MB.
“We’re looking forward to getting going, it’s a smaller camp than we’re used to but that’s fine,” said Rockets’ player personnel director Lorne Frey. “There are some good players coming, we have all but one of our draft picks coming in, so hopefully we have three or four who we can carry over into our main camp.”
Rockets’ main camp begins Saturday, Aug. 27.