Going into the season, expectations were high for a Kelowna Rockets team loaded with so much talent. At the end of the season, the Rockets finished atop the Western Conference with 112 points and a 52-13-5-1(SOL) record, but just two points out of first in the entire Western Hockey League. Kelowna steamrolled through the first three rounds of the playoffs going 12-3. They swept Tri-City, lost one to Victoria and two to Portland. In the WHL finals, they met the best team from the East in the Brandon Wheat Kings. In a dominating effort, the Rockets swept Brandon to win Ed Chynoweth Cup.
Now, for the first time since 2009, the Kelowna Rockets are heading to compete for the Memorial Cup. The Rockets will also be looking to win their first Memorial Cup since Nashville Predators Captain Shea Weber was with the team in 2004. For the last two seasons, another Predators prospect, Justin Kirkland, has been playing with the Rockets. Kirkland battled injury earlier in the season and was only able to play in 50 games this season, but amassed 51 points (21G-30A) on a star-studded team boasting some of the top NHL prospects and at least one projected first round pick in the 2015 draft. For Kirkland, becoming a league champion was what he called “an unbelievable experience.”
“It was kind of a big relief because that was our main goal day one,” said Kirkland on winning the Cup. “We wanted to win the league. Standing up on the bench at the end, it was just a feeling of, ‘Wow, we did it!’ Obviously all sorts of emotions ran through my mind. It’s hard to put into words, but the last seconds were a lot of fun with all of the guys jumping up and down on the bench and then skating out onto the ice and throwing all of your stuff. It’s a memory I’ll have for a lifetime.”
Part of being a successful team is having many key players in a support role. For Kelowna, the team had six players with over 50 points and nine over 40 points. Out of the six top scorers for the Rockets, four of them have already been drafted by NHL teams, including Kirkland. This season, they put the skill and talent together in the playoffs to make a run.
“I think it was huge for our success on how we came together after we made all of those moves,” said Kirkland. “It wasn’t easy saying goodbye to teammates. We lost some really good guys, but brought in guys like Morrissey and Draisaitl. That was huge for our team, and they’re also really good team guys. I think that was big for our success. As a team, we’re so positive. Against Brandon, we didn’t get the best start in the first two games, but with the attitude that we had, we knew that we capable of coming back and taking over the game.”
The trades Kirkland speaks of are the two blockbuster deals made by Kelowna with the Prince Albert Raiders in the winter to bring in two big time NHL prospects. In December, the Rockets traded for defenseman Josh Morrissey, the 13th overall pick in 2013 by the Winnipeg Jets. Following that trade, Kelowna then proved they were “all in” by trading for the Edmonton Oilers’ third overall pick of the 2014 draft, Leon Draisaitl. Adding these two players boosted the skill on the roster in a tremendous fashion. While Draisaitl was named the playoff MVP, Kirkland understands they had to give up players to get him, but knows how big of a role he made in the team’s run to the championship.
“We lost some good players as well, but he just adds so much depth to our team,” said Kirkland. “Anyone who follows the NHL would know that being a top three pick, he’s obviously an incredible player. Not only is a good player, but he’s a good team guy. He definitely made a huge, positive impact for our team. It’s hard to say if we could do it without him or not, but he definitely did help.”
Throughout the entire season, a lot of focus has been on Nick Merkley, the leading scoring for Kelowna with 90 points (20G-70A) in 72 games. Merkley is eligible for this year’s draft and is currently ranked 19th in the ISS Hockey Top 30 Prospects. Much of his success has been in playing with San Jose Sharks prospect Rourke Chartier, where Merkley always to find a way to get Chartier the puck. Kirkland provided a perfect scouting report on Merkely.
“For his offensive abilities, he’s so fast out there,” said Kirkland. “He plays so gritty. He’s probably the hardest competitor on our team. He just never quits on the puck, and he has an incredible skill level. He has unreal vision and can make the seeing eye passes. Also, he doesn’t shoot too often as a pass first guy, but when he does shoot, he’s got a really good shot as well. We’ve been really good friends for the past two years, so I’m really excited for this summer for him.”
All of these future NHL stars will be competing for the ultimate prize in junior hockey beginning later this week in Quebec City, Quebec. Especially for players in the WHL, this will be a wonderful experience for them not just in playing the game, but also in traveling cross country. They’ll also be playing against brand new teams, and will have the opportunity to battle the best in the entire Canadian Hockey League.
“I definitely think that one of the best parts is being able to measure up against every league and see where we stand,” said Kirkland. “I don’t think there’s a favorite going into the tournament. I think we’re all pretty much on the same level. It’s going to be exciting. Every team has a top skill guy. You look at Quebec with Duclair and Oshawa has guys like Dal Colle. It’s going to be fun playing against those guys. Hopefully we can come out on top and trying to take it in all at the same time. I’ve never been to Quebec so all the history there and their arena will be fun. Game one is already sold out, so it’ll be a lot of fun to play in.”
After winning the WHL last Wednesday, the team took a few days before getting back to the ice and preparing to travel to Quebec.
“We had a few days off just to relax and rest,” said Kirkland. “Now, we’re back to work. We have practice the next few days and then heading out on Wednesday to Quebec and leave pretty early. Hopefully we get adjusted to the time change pretty quick since it’s three hours.”
With traveling to Quebec, the Rockets will obviously be very far away from their home fans at Prospera Place. Two of the four teams in the Memorial Cup will be in their home province. Throughout the entire season though, the fans came out in droves to support their team. It’s something Kirkland is definitely thankful for.
“We can’t thank them enough as they’ve been like a seventh man out there for us,” Kirkland said. “Especially in playoffs, it was almost like night and day. They really ramped it up with noise makers, and the whole place was going nuts. In the last game, we were sold out before the game with standing room only, over 6,500 people. Who doesn’t love playing in front of a crowd like that?”
The Memorial Cup runs from May 21-31 and the first night kicks off with Kelowna facing the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League this Friday night. The other representatives in the tournament include the Rimouski Oceanic, also of the QMJHL and the Oshawa Generals of the Ontario Hockey League. Each team will play the other three once. They will then be seeded with the top team earning a spot in the final. The second and third team will then battle for a chance to play in the final. It’s been a long, playoffs for the four teams. Kelowna’s first game of the playoffs was on March 27th. If they keep up the run, their last could be just over two months with a Memorial Cup victory.
Get more information on the Memorial Cup.
Images provided courtesy of Shoot The Breeze.