Like each and every season, Bruce Hamilton’s expectations are nothing less than his team challenging for a Western Hockey League championship.
And each year when the playoffs end before the month of May, the Kelowna Rockets’ GM feels a sense of both emptiness and unfinished business.
The Rockets were ousted from the WHL post season Sunday night, losing in six games to the Seattle Thunderbirds in the Western Conference championship.
Based on the way his club played over the last two months of the season, Hamilton believed the Rockets had set the table for a championship run.
As it turned out, the defending Western Conference champion Thunderbirds were one roadblock the Rockets couldn’t find a way to get past.
“I had a good feeling about this team, the pathway we were on from the trade deadline on, I really felt we had the team to win,” said Hamilton. “Our team got a lot better, I’m pretty sure people didn’t think we were going to sneak up on them like we did.
“I tried to explain to our players how hard it is to get there and to win,” he added. “We’re very fortunate to have been there (the Memorial Cup) five times before, so to get that close and see it slip away is always disappointing.”
As was the case at times during the regular season, Hamilton said discipline and was an issue again for the Rockets in the Western Conference final.
The GM also credited Seattle for their workmanlike effort and said the physical punishment delivered on the Rockets on a nightly basis took its toll.
“You can’t take anything away from Seattle, they’re a very physical team and as the series went on our guys seemed less and less interested,” said Hamilton, who also pointed to a pair of late game-winning goals in Games 1 and 3 by Seattle that shifted momentum in the series. “I thought through the first four games, we really had a chance to grab hold of the series, but those late goals really turned the series.”
Outgoing captain Rodney Southam is one of at least six players who the Rockets will see moving on. The Saskatoon-born forward is joined by overage grads Michael Herringer and playoff scoring leader Reid Gardiner, as well as Nick Merkley, Calvin Thurkauf, Lucas Johansen—and possibly Devante Stephens—who are expected to turn pro.
As for the future, Hamilton is upbeat about the club the Rockets will ice next season. Dillon Dube, Kole Lind, Cal Foote and Nolan Foote are among those who will form the foundation of the team.
And with youngsters like Kyle Topping, Liam Kindree, Jack Cowell and Kaeden Korczak all expected to take a another big step forward, Hamilton said the coaching staff should have another strong stable of talent to work with.
“We’ve got a good group coming back,” said Hamilton. “It was a learning curve this year for Jason (Smith) but now he knows all of them, he’ll be able to come in next year and hit the the ground running.”
As for Jason Smith—with the exception of winning a championship—there wasn’t much more the 43-year-old head coach could have asked from his rookie season behind the Rockets’ bench.
“It was outstanding,” said Smith, who led Kelowna to 45 regular season victories. “As a staff the work ethic, the time the players put in and the energy they brought every day to the rink, it was great to come to the rink. To be around a group of kids or young men or whatever you want to call them: They were well-behaved, they worked hard, they were coachable and good people. It was a great experience.”
The Rockets are now preparing for this Thursday’s WHL bantam draft in Calgary. Kelowna’s first choice will be in the second round, 39th overall.