GAME DAY: KELOWNA AT VICTORIA
7 p.m. at Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre
TV: None / Radio: The Zone 91.3 FM
All is not right with one of the Victoria Royals’ greatest rivals.
To say the Kelowna Rockets are experiencing turbulence may be the understatement of the Western Hockey League season. The Rockets (24-26-4) sputter into Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre tonight and Saturday under former assistant and now newly minted interim head coach Kris Mallette.
Built with an older roster because they are hosting the Memorial Cup this spring, the Rockets have acutely underachieved. It cost Adam Foote his head coaching position this week as the former NHL blue-liner, two-time Stanley Cup champion and Olympic gold-medallist was fired.
“Anytime you go through this, there is zero fun to it,” said Rockets president and GM Bruce Hamilton.
How this affects the team is anybody’s guess, especially considering that Foote’s son Nolan Foote is Kelowna’s captain. If this week wasn’t eventful enough, world junior gold-medallist Nolan Foote’s NHL rights were traded from Tampa Bay to New Jersey.
“It’s a tough week for the Footes,” acknowledged Hamilton, in his media scrum Wednesday.
“The trade was a big shock to [Nolan]. I’m sure as a son, it’s not a great thing at all either [to have your dad fired as head coach].”
These are certainly precarious times for the Rockets, despite their guaranteed berth in the 2020 Memorial Cup major-junior national championship tournament. Or more to the point, because of their position as host team.
“We need to get some traction,” said Hamilton.
“The team has struggled since the Christmas break. With fourteen games remaining in the regular season, I felt a change was necessary at this time. Another voice probably was needed for this group of players. A new voice is what is going to hopefully help us.”
There’s an old adage that coaches are hired to be fired.
“You accept this as a part of your profession when you take on the job,” said Royals head coach Dan Price.
“You can’t control everything. Lots of changes happen in this business.”
Both the Royals and Rockets have suffered through a brutal stretch of injuries. Victoria has weathered it better than Kelowna.
There will be no Foote in the door at all this weekend at the Memorial Centre with first-round draft-pick Nolan in New Jersey undergoing a post-trade physical being conducted by the Devils.
Victoria was down seven regulars recently, which improved to six out for Wednesday’s 3-2 shootout loss to the Calgary Hitmen.
“I am proud of our guys, and in admiration of them,” said Price.
“We had nine players play between 22 to 30 minutes against Calgary. That is a crazy amount of playing time.”
Price said Royals forwards Tarun Fizer, Sean Gulka and first-round Anaheim Ducks draft pick Brayden Tracey are “probables” to return this weekend against Kelowna.
The Kamloops Blazers (35-16-4 for 74 points) look to have the B.C. Division regular-season crown sewn up. Second-place Victoria (29-20-7 for 65 points) and the third-place Vancouver Giants (29-20-5 for 63 points with two games in hand) are fighting for home-ice advantage in what is increasingly looking like a first-round playoff match-up.
The fourth-place Rockets have 52 points and look to be relegated to a wild-card playoff spot and an opening-round match-up against either of the top-two Western Conference seeds — Kamloops or the Portland Winterhawks. So the Rockets could be out of the WHL post-season early and then having a long wait to play as the Memorial Cup host in May.
But that’s not the Royals’ concern. They have their own post-season route to contemplate.
“Historically, home teams are 50/50 in the WHL playoffs, but being home matters to us because we play well at home and have a comfort level here,” said Victoria GM Cameron Hope, about the race down the stretch in the regular season.
“You can’t slide a piece of paper between us and Vancouver at the moment. We have three games remaining against the Giants and those are going to be pre-playoff, playoff games.”
But first things first, and that’s the listing Rockets, tonight and Saturday on Blanshard.
“Every club has its trials and tribulations,” said Hope.
“Kelowna is still a dangerous team.”
The Royals and Rockets play each other nine times this season with Victoria holding a 4-2 edge in the six games played to date.