Top sports stories of 2016: No titles, but eventful year for Rockets

WHL's Kelowna Rockets lost two key players to injury, released a head coach and hired a head coach in 2016

The Kelowna Rockets went in a new direction behind the bench in 2016

The Kelowna Rockets couldn’t duplicate their success of a year earlier with a trip to the Memorial Cup, but 2016 still provided its share of drama and story lines for the Western Hockey League club.

With new head coach Brad Ralph behind the bench, the first pivotal moment of the season came in February when forward Nick Merkley suffered a knee injury in a game against the Spokane Chiefs.

The club’s leading scorer at the time, the Calgary native missed the remainder of the 2015-16 with a damaged ACL.

“I’ve got lots of support, family, friends and teammates, so I’m staying positive,” Merkley, the 30th pick overall by the Coyotes in the 2015 NHL entry draft, said following surgery.

“I have to work now on recovering fully, come back healthy for next season and continue my career…obviously I’m going to try and make it in Arizona, but if not I’ve got a great team to come back to in Kelowna.”

Merkley was able to make a full recovery and was returned to the Rockets by the Coyotes in October for the 2016-17 season.

Later in February, the Rockets were hit with more unwelcome news when Jackson Whistle was forced to bring an end to his Western Hockey League career.

The 20-year-old goaltender underwent surgery to repair injuries to both hips, likely the result of years of wear and tear from playing the butterfly style.

Whistle, who led the Rockets to within a goal of the Memorial Cup a season earlier, was clearly disappointed but had no regrets with his four seasons in Kelowna.

“Ever since I was traded from Vancouver, the Rockets have meant everything to me,” said Whistle, who now plays with Belfast of the EIHL in the United Kingdom.

“It’s been such a great experience, the success we’ve had as a team and the friends I’ve made.

“Living at home and playing with this team, you can’t beat that.”

Without Whistle and Merkley, the Rockets were pushed to the limit in their first two playoff series, but managed to beat both Kamloops and Victoria in seven games.

But by the Western Conference final, the tank was pretty much empty as the Seattle Thunderbirds swept the Rockets in four straight games.

Following the season, the club parted company with head coach Brad Ralph, who was hired by the Rockets the previous summer after five years coaching in the pro ranks.

“This was a big challenge for him coming here,” said Rockets GM Bruce Hamilton said of Ralph.

“One, because of the expectations we have and, two, not having worked in junior hockey…and that was a real adjustment.”

Not long after Ralph’s departure, the Rockets hired former NHL defenceman Jason Smith as their new head coach.

An ex-captain with the Edmonton Oilers and Philadelphia Flyers, Smith joined returning coaches Kris Mallette and Travis Crickard.

“There’s a learning curve, but I’m excited for the challenge,” Smith said after being hired in July.

“Travis and Kris are both experienced guys who want to learn and want to grow.

“I’m looking forward to working with the guys on a regular basis. That’s what I really learned in the NHL, you have to work as a unit, rely on each other. That’s something we’re looking to improve on as a staff.”

After a slow start under Smith, the Rockets hit their stride in December, and by Christmas had 22 wins, good for second in the B.C. Division and third place overall in the Western Conference.

In December, Rockets Dillon Dube (Canada), Calvin Thurkauf (Switzerland) and Tomas Soustal (Czech Republic) were all named to their respective country’s teams for the world junior hockey championship in Montreal.