They trace a genealogy of winning; the Rockets have made the WHL playoffs 18 times in 20 years in Kelowna, won the championship three times, played in four Memorial Cup tournaments (they're one of five teams since 1972 to play in three straight (2003-05), and won the Memorial Cup in 2004.
Along the way, the Rockets, led by owner/general manager Bruce Hamilton and assistant GM Lorne Frey, have produced an alumni list full of well-known NHL players.
Among them are 11 defensemen who opened the 2014-15 season on an NHL roster, more than any junior or European development program.
If the Penn State University football team is known as Linebacker U., then the Kelowna Rockets could be called the Cradle of Defensemen.
"Maybe Lorne Frey has some special thing going on up there," said Scott Hannan, a San Jose Sharks defenseman and Kelowna alum. "He knows where to draft. … They're just smart hockey guys. And I think when you see that, and to be able to have good coaching staffs and a good facility to train the right way, you've seen that [NHL development] with the defensemen especially. They've been able to develop some really, really good defensemen.
"There's a number of them out there and it's something special to see."
|Damon Severson continuing a Kelowna tradition of NHL d-men. |
IN THE BEGINNING
Hamilton founded the Tacoma (Wash.) Rockets in 1991, but after four seasons playing in the 22,000-seat Tacoma Dome, he relocated the franchise to British Columbia, settling in Kelowna, a resort city in the middle of the Okanagan Valley, about four hours east of Vancouver.
"When we were in Tacoma I was spending most of my time trying to find a way to keep our business going," Hamilton said.
Hamilton built a solid team in Tacoma and took a number of those players with him to Kelowna. Among them was Hannan, a big, solid defenseman the Rockets selected with the No. 8 pick of the 1994 WHL draft. Then 15, Hannan played two games with Tacoma in 1994-95 and the following season he emerged as a key piece for the Rockets; among his teammates was Sheldon Souray, who was acquired in a midseason trade. Souray has played in the NHL since 1997 and is property of the Anaheim Ducks.
"When [Hannan] was 14 he was a horse," Frey said. "When he came to us as a 16-year-old, at that time he was probably playing 20, 25 minutes a night. … He was very mature at 16 years of age. He was big, he was mature, he was smart. He's the same player that he is now. Back then he was a little bit better offensively. In the years he was with us, just a good, honest, solid, two-way guy. In his later years with us he played 30, 35 minutes a night. Some nights he'd play 40 minutes a night."
As a 17-year-old in 1996-97, Hannan had 17 goals and 43 points, and the Sharks selected him with the 23rd pick of the 1997 NHL Draft.
"Hannan was our first bona fide star that came along," Hamilton said. "He's been a solid, stay-at-home, do-your-job guy that's had a wonderful career."
Hannan played two seasons with the Rockets after being drafted. Now 35, he has played 16 NHL seasons with five teams, and won a gold medal with Canada at the 2004 World Cup and a silver medal with Canada at the 2005 World Championship.
Hannan knows the foundation for his pro success was forged in Kelowna.
"It's pretty cool," he said. "It's like family up there. I still talk to Bruce Hamilton and Gavin Hamilton [vice president of business development], the management. They're great people."
MEMORIAL CUP CORE
The season after Hannan left, Josh Gorges joined the Rockets for the 2000-01 season.
Now, Gorges is in his 10th NHL season, his first with the Buffalo Sabres. Then, Gorges was just a fan from Kelowna, attending games at Kelowna Memorial Arena, where the Rockets played before moving into Prospera Place, with a hockey dream. He starred for the town's minor hockey association and was captain of the bantam team.
But Gorges was not selected in the WHL draft. How he ended up with his hometown team was almost accidental.
"We thought he was going to go the college route," Frey said. "That's why he didn't get drafted. He was a very good player, very good offensively. … Very good defensively, smart, moved the puck, made good plays. His compete level was second to none.
"His dad phoned me one day and said, 'I want to talk to you,' and I said, 'What about?' He said, 'Josh wants to play for you guys.' … I said, 'That's good enough for me, we want him here too.'"
Two seasons later, the Rockets unearthed another undrafted gem who was playing Junior B hockey about two hours north in Sicamous, British Columbia. Shea Weber has grown into an NHL star, but at 15 he was an unknown.
"Now, with all of the best-ever programs, there are very few players that are hidden anymore," Hamilton said. "You may find the odd player out of the north that has been missed because they don't play in bigger centers … you don't find him today."
But Frey, as usual, found him.
"[Weber] was playing a bantam game here and I went to the game to watch two draft kids that were playing in Sicamous that were highly rated kids, had some potential," Frey said. "I'm watching the game, first time I'd seen him. Nice player, their captain. Skates well, showed a little bit of grit. Then the next week they were back, so I went back and saw him again. I said, 'He looks OK, he looks pretty good, looks pretty solid.' So I listed him that day."
Being placed on the Rockets' protected list earned Weber an invitation to training camp the following season, but he didn't wow anyone.
"We sent him back [to Junior B] the first time," Hamilton said (Weber played five games with Kelowna before the demotion).
Weber lasted a bit longer the following season. He blossomed in Kelowna, beginning in earnest the journey that led him to becoming a four-time NHL All-Star and three-time Norris Trophy finalist with two Olympic gold medals.
"I know we were just fortunate we had a lot of good young defensemen," Weber said. "They developed, and I think the coaching was very good when I was there. … The Hamiltons bring you in and the coaches help develop you and lead you along your career into pro."
About the same time Frey found Weber, he became enamored with another undrafted defenseman, this one on the smaller side. Duncan Keith, 15, didn't impress much with his size, but Frey saw other attributes when he watched him at a summer all-star camp. Frey was so impressed he added Keith to the protected list and invited him to training camp.
He came to camp that year as a 15-year-old and blew us out of the water. We're going after the first couple days of camp, 'Where did this guy come from?' - Rockets' assistant GM Lorne Frey on Damon Severson
"When he came to our camp I think he was unreal as a 15-year-old," Frey said. "… He was about 5-4 or 5-5, had the puck all the time. His feet were like they are now. I just invited him to camp and he shows up. ... All of a sudden he gets on the ice and he's got the puck the whole time. I went to list him and a lot of scouts thought I was nuts. They said I was crazy, 'He'll never play in our league; he's no bigger than a peanut.'
"I said back then to one of the other team's scouts when we saw him, this kid will play in the National Hockey League someday."
Keith has played in the NHL for a decade now with Chicago, winning the Stanley Cup twice and two Olympic gold medals. Now 6-foot-1, 192 pounds, he has won the Norris Trophy twice.
Keith's father wasn't a believer and initially refused to let his son play in the WHL. Keith instead spent two seasons with Penticton in the British Columbia Hockey League before joining Michigan State University for the 2001-02 season.
By then Keith had grown into a top NHL prospect and the Chicago Blackhawks chose him in the second round (No. 54) of the 2002 NHL Draft. After 15 games with the Spartans in 2002-03, Keith left school and joined the Rockets.
"I knew that Scott Hannan had come through there, and I knew there'd been some good players go through their organization," Keith said. "But more than anything, it was just a good organization to be part of."
The Rockets were happy to have Keith, even if it was later than expected.
"I know Lorne really liked him," Hamilton said. "He was a skilled guy that had the puck all the time. That's the kind of player Lorne really likes: skilled guys that can skate. … He came here and he was a smaller guy at that time. Wasn't a lot of weight to him, but an unbelievable skater. When he first started here I had some concerns with whether he would survive because it was a rough league, but he did flourish. To this day, one of the more dynamic defenseman we've ever had, offensively for sure."
Keith tied Gorges for the lead among Kelowna defensemen with 11 goals, and had 46 points in 37 games. Keith then had 14 points in 19 playoff games to help Kelowna win its first WHL title. At the 2003 Memorial Cup in Quebec City, Kelowna lost in the semifinals and finished third.
"I think just, in general, of the competitive team we had and the camaraderie of that group," Keith said of his memories of Kelowna. "To this day it still sticks out in my mind as being a very special group and a team that guys would play for one another and really cared about each other."
Keith turned pro the next season, and Gorges and Weber returned, each a year older and more mature. Joining them on defense was another undrafted find by Frey, Kyle Cumiskey, who is playing in the American Hockey League after time with the Blackhawks and the Colorado Avalanche.
Gorges was named captain and led at both ends of the ice; Weber, who was a bottom-pair defenseman who led the Rockets in penalty minutes the previous season, evolved into an offensive force with 12 goals and 32 points in 60 games.
Kelowna lost the 2004 WHL final, but as the Memorial Cup host they earned a spot in the tournament. They swept their three round-robin games, allowing two goals, and then beat the Gatineau Olympiques, champions of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, in the final. Weber had one goal and three assists in four games and was named to the Memorial Cup all-star team.
Gorges graduated to professional hockey after winning the championship; 19-year-old Weber, who had been picked by the Nashville Predators in the second round (No. 49) of the 2003 NHL Draft, became the foundation of the Rockets for the 2004-05 season. He scored 12 goals but his season ended in early March because of a knee injury.
Weber returned after Kelowna won its first-round playoff series and finished with nine goals and 17 points to help the Rockets win their second WHL title in three seasons. Weber was named most valuable player of the playoffs.
At the Memorial Cup in London, Ontario, Weber had three assists in three games, but the Rockets lost all three by a total of four goals.
It ended a remarkable run, one which helped the players forge bonds that still exist.
"Obviously there's a lot of fun times and memories, some of the best times guys will tell you they had," Weber said. "You're such a tight family; you move away from your real family, so your close family is really your teammates and your billets. You still keep in touch with a lot of those guys today. They're still like family to you."
PAYING IT FORWARD
Late in Weber's final season he was asked to mentor a player Kelowna selected in the first round of the 2004 WHL draft.
Luke Schenn was a 15-year-old with the Saskatoon Contacts minor-midget program when he was invited to spend time in Kelowna. He stayed in a room at the same billet house as Weber.
"I was fortunate when I first came in [to Kelowna] I had some great older guys," Weber said. "They were very good to me and taught me that you have to take care of the younger guys that come in. My last year, Luke came up as a 15-year-old and stayed with me for a little bit before we went to the Memorial Cup in London. Just tried to help him make the adjustment for the following year, where he'd be with the team full-time."
The help, on and off the ice, was vital for Schenn; when he returned to Kelowna for the 2005-06 season he moved into Weber's old room.
That season the Rockets broke in another rookie, one who arrived from a far greater distance than Schenn.
Alexander Edler was chosen by the Vancouver Canucks in the third round (No. 91) of the 2004 NHL Draft. In 2005, the Canucks wanted him to start learning the game in North America.
"All I knew then was that Vancouver wanted me to come over and play junior hockey," Edler said. "They knew that Kelowna is a great organization and a good place for me to play."
The 19-year-old struggled early, but a December visit from fellow Swede and Canucks head scout Thomas Gradin helped. Edler finished with 53 points in 42 games, most among WHL rookie defensemen, and his plus-21 led the Rockets.
Schenn also had an up-and-down season.
"When I first came there, Bruce Hamilton told me, 'We'll try to play you 50 games,'" Schenn said. "Up until Christmas I didn't really play a ton. I had won the Telus Cup the year before with the Saskatoon Contacts midget triple-A, so I thought, 'I'll go back there maybe and play.' Bruce kept telling me to stick it out. Then I went to the [World Under-17 Hockey Challenge] in Regina [Saskatchewan] and had a really good tournament. Our assistant GM, Lorne Frey, was there watching. Right when I came back he said we should start trying to play me a little bit more. I think after that tournament it helped me a lot. I gained confidence, and then after that I played a ton."
Late that season, the Rockets had another rookie defenseman make his WHL debut.
Tyler Myers was a very tall, very skinny 15-year-old who had one assist in nine games a few months after being selected by the Rockets with the 19th pick of the 2005 WHL draft.
"I couldn't believe he slipped to us," Frey said. "I don't know why people were scared away from him. ... A lot of people thought he wasn't gritty enough and he didn't play with a lot of intensity. We thought otherwise. He's 6-foot-4 and he can skate, had real good puck skills. He moved the puck well, was smart. He had a little more bite than other guys thought he would. It was a no-brainer for us."
Schenn did his part in the Kelowna tradition and had Myers live with him.
"He got called up as a 15-year-old and he spent the rest of the season with us," Schenn said. "He stayed with my billets and myself. It was cool that he stayed with me and we got to know each other."
The management team in Kelowna knew patience would be extremely important in Myers' development.
"He was at the Edge [School for Athletes] in Calgary," Hamilton said. "He had missed a lot of the year when Lorne drafted him with a shoulder problem. … There had to be some patience, let him grow into his body.
"He could always skate. He loved to have body contact and he was penalized for his size lots of time. His skating, he could be out of our end in three strides. It was just him filling out."
Edler graduated to the Canucks in 2006-07 and Kelowna missed the playoffs, but Schenn and Myers made big steps in their development. When the 2007-08 season started, Myers (No. 2) and Schenn (No. 4) were in the top five among WHL players in NHL Central Scouting's preliminary rankings of the top prospects for the 2008 NHL Draft, and they lived up to their billing.
Schenn had seven goals, 28 points and a plus-5 rating in 57 games and helped Canada win the gold medal at the 2008 IIHF World Junior Championship. Myers had 19 points in 65 games; he was a minus-16 but his size and reach excited NHL scouts.
In Central Scouting's final rankings, Myers was No. 4, Schenn was No. 5; at the draft Schenn was taken No. 5 by the Toronto Maple Leafs, Myers at No. 12 by the Buffalo Sabres.
Schenn went right to the NHL, and Myers returned for another season in Kelowna. He excelled in 2008-09 with 42 points and a plus-31 rating in 58 regular-season games, and helped Canada win the gold medal at the 2009 WJC. In the 2009 WHL playoffs, Myers led defensemen with 20 points and was named playoff MVP.
He also helped develop the player who would follow him as Kelowna's top defenseman, Tyson Barrie.
Barrie led WHL rookie defensemen in scoring in 2007-08 with 43 points in 64 games. Paired with Myers in 2008-09, Barrie had 52 points and a plus-17 rating, and 18 points in 22 WHL playoff games to help the Rockets advance to the Memorial Cup.
At the 2009 Memorial Cup, in Rimouski, Quebec, Kelowna went 2-1 to finish first in round-robin play but lost to the Windsor Spitfires, champions of the Ontario Hockey League, in the championship game.
Myers had one goal and three assists in four games and was named to the all-tournament team.
Barrie drew the attention of NHL scouts, and the Colorado Avalanche selected him in the third round (No. 64) of the 2009 NHL Draft.
"Luke Schenn was my [defense] partner when I was 16 and Myers was my partner when I was 17," Barrie said. "It was a great experience for me to get to play with those guys, to learn from them. They were dominant at that level and they definitely helped my game."
Barrie returned to Kelowna for the 2009-10 season and his skill level skyrocketed. He had 19 goals and led WHL defensemen with 72 points, a single-season record for Kelowna defensemen.
What is remembered by those who watched in Kelowna was how Barrie evolved from an offense-only defenseman to a player who respected both ends of the ice.
"When Tyson got here … we had to get Tyson to understand he had to play in our end of the rink too," Hamilton said. "He had been used to being the guy that could change the game at any moment when he would take the puck and go. For his first couple years here he had to understand that didn't work. At the end, he was back to playing that way."
Hamilton regards Barrie as one of his favorite players.
"I'm so happy he's in the NHL because a lot of people said he wouldn't just because of the way he played and how big he is (5-10, 190)," Hamilton said. "An outstanding player here. Maybe one of the nicest young men I've ever met."
As Barrie was developing his game on the ice, he followed the Kelowna tradition of helping the next generation. In his case it was a player the Rockets found in the ninth round of the 2009 WHL draft.
Damon Severson was playing for the Melville Millionaires in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League when the Rockets drafted him with the 194th pick.
"When we took Damon in the ninth round, his dad said, 'You got the best one in the lot,'" Frey said of a WHL draft class that among defensemen included Morgan Rielly (Toronto Maple Leafs), Matt Dumba (Minnesota Wild), Seth Jones (Nashville Predators) and Derrick Pouliot (Pittsburgh Penguins). "I said, 'That's nice of you to say as his dad.' But he ended up being not far wrong.
"He came to camp that year as a 15-year-old and blew us out of the water. We're going after the first couple days of camp, 'Where did this guy come from?' It was lights out. He was by far the best prospect we had in that camp."
After a solid rookie season in 2011-12, Severson earned a chance play in the 2012 CHL/NHL Top Prospects game, which was held at Prospera Place. NHL Central Scouting had Severson at No. 48 in its final ranking of North American skaters for the 2012 NHL Draft.
The New Jersey Devils selected Severson in the second round (No. 60). He spent two more seasons in Kelowna developing his game, and had 25 goals and a plus-90 rating in 2012-13 and 2013-14.
The Devils were stocked with young defensemen heading into the 2014-15 season but Severson leapt to the front of the line.
"I don't think anybody in our organization thought he'd be with the Devils this season," Frey said. "We figured he'd need a year or two in the minors to learn the pro game. But he went this year and was lights out. Same thing he did at our camp when he was 15. He goes in there at 20 and did there what he did here."
Severson played the first 32 games for the Devils and averaged 23:01 of ice time. A broken ankle cost him 31 games, but since returning March 3 he's stepped right back into a key role.
"He never got the fanfare that those other guys did," Hamilton said. "… Hasn't surprised us at all as to how well he's played. The Devils, to their credit, knew they had something. They're just scratching the surface with this guy. He's going to be a bigger, stronger guy than he is now (6-2, 200) and it all goes to the fact that he can skate like the wind."
Hamilton and Frey were scouting prospects for the 2010 WHL draft when they noticed Madison Bowey playing for the Winnipeg Monarchs bantam team.
Kelowna picked defenseman Jesse Lees in the first round. With Bowey on the board when the round ended, Hamilton saw an opportunity.
"Going into the draft there was some thought he may go to (the University of) North Dakota because he's a Winnipeg kid," Hamilton said. "We decided we were going to take a risk and we made a deal with Prince George and moved a number of picks to get that pick (the first pick of the second round). Selected him and there were no issues with him coming here."
Bowey said once Kelowna called his name, any thought of college hockey disappeared.
"I remember when I was younger watching the Memorial Cup with Shea Weber and watching how good he was," Bowey said. "I was thinking it would be awesome to play for the Kelowna Rockets. … I've always really admired the Kelowna Rockets and what they do and how they develop defensemen. It was a big juncture in my career when they drafted me and I got to play for them."
Bowey played three games for the Rockets late in the 2010-11 season and arrived for good at the start of 2011-12.
"I played there a few games as a 15-year-old and a few games in the [WHL] playoffs as well," Bowey said. "Huge at first was Tyson Barrie. … He was the guy that I really kind of followed. When I got there he was a guy that really helped me be calm and really kind of took me under his wing and that really helped me."
The help pushed Bowey along quickly in his development. In his second season, he had 30 points and a plus-41 rating in 69 games. The Washington Capitals saw enough to select him in the second round (No. 53) of the 2013 NHL Draft.
"When I got [to Kelowna] when I was 16, I was more of an offensive-minded defenseman and that was the main thing I worried about," Bowey said. "But over the years I really learned how to be a solid, two-way defenseman. And in my draft year that's what I really focused on, my defensive end. Didn't worry so much about the points, but be solid in that [defensive] aspect of the game because really that's what you need to do to get to the NHL. I think that's what really helped me."
He returned to Kelowna in 2013-14 as captain and continued to flourish, scoring 21 goals. This season he ranked in the top five among WHL defensemen with 17 goals and 60 points, and his plus-38 rating was second on Kelowna. He also helped Canada win the gold medal at the 2015 WJC with one goal, four points and a plus-8 rating in seven games.
"He's a big, strong guy (6-1, 195) that can skate like the wind," Hamilton said. "He's exactly what they're looking for now. His game has evolved pretty well. I think there's still some parts to it that are going to get better as he matures."
With Bowey and Joshua Morrissey, selected by the Winnipeg Jets with the 13th pick of the 2013 NHL Draft and acquired in a trade earlier this season, anchoring their defense, the Rockets finished the regular season with the second-most points in WHL and are a favorite for a fifth Memorial Cup trip.
Bowey and Morrissey figure to be playing pro hockey this time next season, but they won't be the end of the Kelowna defense pipeline. Next are 2015 NHL Draft prospects Devante Stephens, Joe Gatenby and Riley Stadel, and 2016 prospect Lucas Johansen.
In the Kelowna tradition, Bowey is guiding them on their path to success.
"I'm just trying to help them be as comfortable as I can in this league and on our team," Bowey said. "It's always fun ... I got to go through the learning aspect and if I can be a mentor, leader, teacher in that way, I love doing that stuff. That's what I'm trying to do now."
A DIFFERENT TRADITION
Prospera Place is different from other arenas in that fans have to walk up a flight of stairs from the concourse to reach the seats.
That creates high ceilings, and one of the first things Hamilton wanted to do when the Rockets moved into the building in 1999 was to find a way to bring more light into the concourse. One way to do that was to paint 12-foot-tall murals to honor past players.
"Having the murals put up, the building had to put in more lights to light them up," Hamilton said.
One of the first murals was of Hannan, the godfather of Kelowna defensemen.
"I was one of the first ones up there, being the first dog," he said.
As the Rockets experienced more success, Hamilton established guidelines for earning a mural: A player had to win a Memorial Cup, a Stanley Cup or a gold medal at the World Junior Championship or the Olympics.
There are 14 murals, and a number of them honor players who are familiar to NHL fans. Pittsburgh Penguins forward Blake Comeau is up there for being part of the Memorial Cup champions, and Dallas Stars captain Jamie Benn earned his for winning a gold medal at the 2009 World Juniors. The majority of the honorees, though, are defensemen.
Weber's mural depicts him lifting the Memorial Cup while wearing gold medals earned at the 2005 WJC and the 2010 Vancouver Olympics; Keith's has him wearing his gold medal from the 2010 Olympics while posed next to the Stanley Cup; Gorges' features him carrying the Memorial Cup; Schenn and Myers are wearing World Junior gold medals.
"You think it would be neat to be up there, but you never think it would happen," Weber said. "Obviously it's very special, something I'm very grateful for. It's still kind of weird seeing it up there with all the other guys that are up there."
The murals aren't just nice paintings on the wall; they serve as benchmarks for the next generation of Kelowna players. Their placement near the dressing room means current players must pass them every day.
"There's a lot of great payers on the wall, great players who have done so much for the Kelowna Rockets," Bowey said. "I look up there and I think every one of our goals and dreams is to someday be up on that wall."
Bowey will get that wish when some offseason work is done; he and Morrissey will have their murals added as a reward for helping Canada win the most recent World Junior title.
"That's pretty cool," Bowey said. "That's awesome."
Adam Kimelman | NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor