As junior-hockey alumni games go, the Kelowna Rockets’ annual gathering was as good as it gets. Until next year, that is.
A standing-room only crowd of more than 1,000 bodies took in what was a star-studded affair, with several NHLers taking part in the non-contact, high-paced contest. Former Rockets now playing in the NHL who hit the ice on Sunday afternoon included Shea Weber (Nashville), Tyler Myers (Buffalo), Josh Gorges (Montreal), Luke Schenn (Toronto), Cody Almond (Minnesota), Jamie Benn (Dallas), Vern Fiddler (Phoenix), Troy Bodie (Anaheim) and Blake Comeau (New York Islanders).
Absent was Duncan Keith (Chicago), who had a busy weekend in his nearby hometown of Penticton, while several other former Rockets may have shots at landing jobs in the NHL this coming season, including smooth-skating 6-foot-6 defenceman Nolan Yonkman with Phoenix. Yonkman played five seasons in the WHL — four-and-a-half with Kelowna and a half-season with Brandon — before spending time shuttling between the Washington Capitals and their AHL affiliate, the Portland Pirates. For the past four seasons, Yonkman has been playing in the AHL with the Milwaukee Admirals.
At alumni game’s end, Team Black, also known as Gav’s Gunners (head coach, Gavin Hamilton) beat Team White, aka Steamer’s Stallions (head coach, Neil ‘Steamer’ Schmidt). Final score: 9-5, with proceeds going to the Kelowna General Hospital. Winning goalie: Kris Westblom. Taking the loss: Former 2004 Memorial Cup MVP Kelly Guard.
Photos, from top:
Team White forward Brandon McMillan, centre, looks for a centering pass while Team Black defenceman Clayton Barthel, right, tries to defend as the pair close in on goalie Kris Westblom.
Team Black forward Tyler Mosienko, left, and Team White defenceman Josh Gorges.
Team White goaltender Kelly Guard.
Team Black defenceman Tyler Myers.
Comeau called the annual gathering a lot of fun. As usual.
“It was pretty fast paced at the beginning, but I think the boys slowed down at the end,” he said with a laugh. “But, hey, it’s always fun to see old friends and it’s kinda cool the friendships we’ve all gained from playing here. So it’s fun to see everybody again.
“The alumni game is awesome. I can’t believe how many guys who played with the Rockets are now in the NHL, and there’s still a lot of young prospects. It’s a fun thing to be a part of, and I’m proud to say that I played here and I’m proud to say that I know all these guys as well as I do. It’s a lot of fun to be here in the summer time.
“One of the guys said we’d have a pretty good squad in the NHL if we took all the guys that lived and played here in Kelowna and put them together. It’s a big tribute to (president and general manager Bruce Hamilton) and Gavin and the franchise to the great job they’ve done. It’s fun to be a part of.”
One of Comeau’s teammates was Myers, who, like his NHL comrade, was sporting a big smile after the game — his first alumni contest. Mind you, the 6-foot-7 blue-liner has been wearing a permanent grin since making the jump from the WHL to the NHL and Buffalo’s roster last fall.
“The alumni game was a lot of fun,” said Myers, who now makes Kelowna his off-season home. “It was nice to get the win, but to get all the guys together again is pretty cool. It’s nice to have a lot of fun with everybody together.
“It was really amazing to see to see how many guys from this organization that have not only made it (to the NHL), but they want to come back to this city and this organization. I think it shows a great deal about the way things are run here.”
Of course, one can’t talk to Myers without bringing up his incredible season, a campaign where the rookie not only proved to be Buffalo’s best defenceman despite his young age, but also wound up being the NHL’s rookie of the year. Myers was one of four rookies to play all 82 games, and he also finished first amongst rookies with 137 blocked shots and was third in points with 48.
“It’s been a whirlwind for sure,” said Myers. “I really don’t even think I’ve processed it yet, to be honest. Maybe when next season starts, things will settle down and I’ll be able to think about it. But I’m looking to my sophomore year and it’s going to get tougher from here on out, so I’m going to have to work that much harder.”
One player who worked hard in earning a spot in the NHL was Almond. The 6-foot-1 forward started the season in the AHL with the Houston Aeros, where he logged seven goals and 18 points in 48 games, then spent the last part of the season in the big league with the Minnesota Wild (1 goal, 0 assists in 7 games).
“It was an interesting year, but it’s been a lot of fun,” said Almond, who wore green Wild gear for the alumni game but had an Aeros equipment bag. “I had a tough start to the season, with a few injuries — which was odd because I’ve been pretty injury-free my whole life. So it was some bad luck, but I worked hard and I think it was a character year for me, and then I got the call to go up.
“I got to stick with Minnesota for the end of the year, so I think it was a good experience. I learned a lot and it gave me a lot of confidence for next year.”
On playing in the NHL, Almond said “it was a dream come true. Every game’s a blast to play in . . . the environment, the travel, the lifestyle, it’s really something else. It’s a lot of fun.”
On the alumni game, Almond said “it’s always a lot of fun. You start with the golf tournament, which brings a lot of the guys back into town, so it’s nice to see everybody again.”