The Western Hockey League-leading Kelowna Rockets have been goal-scoring machines in the first 28 games of the season. Garnering a 22-3-3 record, the Rockets have put up 129 goals, only trailing the Brandon Wheat Kings by four. One of the key pieces that has been missing for Kelowna in the past few weeks is forward Justin Kirkland, a Nashville Predators prospect. While known to provide secondary scoring, Kirkland is a good compliment to the top line that includes Nick Merkley and Roarke Chartier, who was recently named to the Team Canada selection camp for the World Junior Championship. While the first line for the Rockets has been putting up excellent numbers, secondary scoring is necessary as the team continues its push into the season.
Prior to suffering an upper body injury, Kirkland had registered 20 points (8G-12A) in 21 games, nearly a point per game. He’s finally made his return and will now fill provide even more needed offense to help Kelowna stay at the top. In order to improve his game as the season progresses, there’s still plenty to work on for the young forward.
“I think for me right now, I need to work on my consistency every night and making sure I’m going to be a game changer every single night in and night out,” said Kirkland. “For me, I think that’s the biggest thing right now.”
Playing for a team that is chugging along like the Kelowna Rockets can be a lot of fun, but also put pressure on a player. They cannot take any night off.
“We definitely know every game we’re going to get the other team’s best,” said Kirkland. “Every team circles the calendar when they play us. It’s fun. Things get heated and there’s a lot of good rivalries being created.”
In seeing the Western Hockey League (WHL) in action, it’s easy to understand why the league supplies the NHL with so many physical, defensively sounds players. It’s known as the most physical of the three Canadian Hockey League (CHL) divisions. The action in the WHL seems to be the closest to mimicking that of the NHL compared to the other two. Sometimes, it can be an adjustment, but Kirkland understands what it takes in order to get to the next level.
“When I came up, I was kind of a skilled guy growing up,” said Kirkland. “I knew that if I wanted to get to the next level, I would have to create that part of the game and get physical. I think it came along well last year. The coaches did a good job making me into a 200-foot player, so I definitely give them credit.”
Continuing to improve is important for any junior player to make the jump to the pros. The team wants him to play a more physical game as well as provide offense.
“He’s a guy who provides us with secondary scoring and has an ability to make plays on the ice,” said Kelowna Rockets Assistant Coach Travis Crickard. “He’s a big body and we’re looking for him to play a little more aggressively. He tends to be the guy who wants to make plays, but for Justin we just want him to play more physical along the wall and down low. That would benefit his game tremendously going forward and help him reach his goal of being a pro hockey player.”
Not only are players expected to improve their skills on the ice while playing junior hockey, but they also are expected to be better-groomed young men when they leave. Being away from home presents its challenges, but with a supportive family, Kirkland has been able to overcome the stress of being away from home.
“It’s not easy being away in the summer, but I got used to it,” said Kirkland. “I went to Notre Dame [Saskatchewan] for two years, so I moved out when I was 14. It’s a little bit easier now, but I don’t think my parents have adjusted to it. They’re still pretty upset when I leave, but that’s the sacrifices you have to make to get to next level.”
Parents always play a tremendous role in a hockey player’s life. From mites to midgets, parents are having to carry their young player around for games. Many times, one parent is even a coach. For Kirkland, his entire family has played a role in his development.
“I definitely can’t thank them enough,” said Kirkland on his parents. “It’s hard to put into words. My dad was always my coach growing up and he pushed me to be my best and looking back I definitely have to thank him a lot. My mom and my sister have always been there for me, so I owe a lot to them.”
Kirkland’s family still makes sure to come to his games; spending time in Kelowna as well as catching the Rockets when they travel through his home province of Alberta.
“They actually came out here for two weeks at the start of the year,” said Kirkland. “They’ll also be coming out when we go on our Alberta swing.”
The travel requirements for teams in the WHL can become pretty hefty. Sometimes bus rides can take team as far south as Portland, which is at least an eight to nine hour drive. Kirkland has a unique perspective on what he thinks is the toughest away rink to play in, however.
“Probably Seattle on a Tuesday,” said Kirkland on the toughest away arena for him. “They have Toonie Tuesdays. Two-dollar beers, two-dollar hot dogs and two-dollar tickets. The U.S. fans, they get pretty rowdy, but it’s always one that we look forward to. That would be the toughest.”
The experiences Kirkland gains and skills he improves upon in the WHL will hopefully lead him to an eventual career in the NHL. That process began in June 2014.
This past summer, the Nashville Predators traded up in the third round of the draft to take Kirkland at 62nd overall. He’s aware of the connection the Rockets share with the Nashville Predators. Weber even made a personal connection with Kirkland following the draft.
“It’s definitely sweet, especially with the little Kelowna Rocket connection that they have with Shea Weber and Colton Sissons,” said Kirkland on being a part of the Predators organization. “It was a really neat experience for me at camp being able to meet Shea for the first time and he’s really nice. He took me under his wing. It’s awesome, especially to see that they’re doing well.”
With the direction the NHL is going in regards to the skills required of the players, Kelowna seems to be preparing Kirkland to be a player that will eventually fit perfectly into the system for the Nashville Predators.
“The way Justin plays, it shouldn’t be a problem with that organization and the way they play,” said Crickard. “You can’t play in the league if you can’t defend, so the biggest thing for these kids is play well offensively, but you also need to play structurally well and play your position well in your own zone or you won’t be able to play professional hockey.”
Kirkland, who said his favorite super hero would be Spiderman, believes his current team has what it takes to win. Does he think this be another championship year for the Kelowna Rockets?
“Absolutely, I do,” said Kirkland. “We have something special in this group. We’re a really tight group and I think this is our year, so we’ll see how it works out.”
It’s easy to see what the Nashville Predators saw in the 18-year old prospect. He’s a well-spoken leader on a team full of them. As long as he continues to improve his physical play along with providing offense, Kirkland will prove how deep the prospect pool is for the Predators.
*Photo Credit: Marissa Baecker – Shoot the Breeze*