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Assistant GM Frey chief pilot for Rockets

by Adam Kimelman / NHL.com

The Kelowna Rockets of the Western Hockey League had 11 defensemen on NHL opening-night rosters this season, each featuring a unique skill set.

There's the all-around brilliance of Duncan Keith of the Chicago Blackhawks and Shea Weber of the Nashville Predators, the offensively gifted Tyson Barrie of the Colorado Avalanche, and defensive-minded Scott Hannan of the San Jose Sharks.

The common denominator among all of them is 64-year-old Kelowna assistant general manager Lorne Frey, a scout so dedicated to the business he might have some coffee in his blood stream.

"I hired him before we had control of the expansion franchise," Kelowna owner and general manager Bruce Hamilton said. "He's as close to me as anybody is. We don't make any decisions without both of us being involved.

"At the end of the day, my say is the last one, but generally we both agree before we come to that. We've been doing it that way for 20-some years now."

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The murals on the walls of Prospera Place, home of the Kelowna Rockets of the Western Hockey League, are striking for their size and the stories they tell.

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.

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Projecting NHL success from an ice rink full of teenagers is akin to picking the doctor out of an auditorium full of elementary school children. But Frey's success average is better than most; there are a few things he looks for when he's at the rink.

"The biggest thing is their intelligence level when playing the game and being able to read plays, to make plays, make good passes," he said. "From a defensive standpoint, those are the things most difficult to teach in our minds, being cerebral and being intelligent about the game. Those are things you can't teach; they're instincts you're born with and are innate that allow you to continue to play. Those are the first things we try to look at."

Frey has found some gems. Keith was a 15-year-old so small his father wouldn't let him play in the WHL, but Frey kept him on Kelowna's reserve list; Weber was playing in tiny Sicamous, British Columbia; Damon Severson of the New Jersey Devils was an unknown playing 15 hours away in Melville, the smallest city in Saskatchewan according to the 2011 census.

Each of them developed into a star with the Rockets, as did many others. Frey refuses to take credit for the players' development, but those who know him speak to how important he has been in their lives.

"I don't think the organization would even be close to what it is [without Frey]," Luke Schenn of the Philadelphia Flyers said. "Obviously Bruce does a hell of a job but Lorne is the backbone of what goes on there."

Frey's role is to draft and recruit the players, selling them on coming to Kelowna. Sometimes he does even more; he billeted Hannan and Keith during their time with the Rockets.

"He's a great guy," Hannan said. "I just remember him my first few camps talking to my grandpa every time we went up there. Peppered him with questions. He always asked him about my folks. He's a great man."

Keith said, "He had a big impact. ... He believed in me. There were probably times when they were talking about letting me go and taking me off their 50-man protected list since I'd chosen to go to Michigan State first. But they kept me on the whole time, so I think he was a big part of that. Not only that, but apart from hockey he's just a great guy, very caring, and the type of guy you really trust with everything."

Frey doesn't add players to a team; he sees it more as adding children to a family.

"I'm in their corner," Frey said. "I'm on their side. I defend my players to the hilt. Some people might think that's a bad trait. Bruce and I have had some discussions on players and I defend my players to the hilt."

This season's Rockets, who have the best record in the WHL, are full of more players discovered by Frey. Top 2015 NHL Draft prospect and leading scorer Nicholas Merkley was a first-round WHL draft pick, as was San Jose Sharks prospect Rourke Chartier, who was third in the WHL with 48 goals. Top defenseman Madison Bowey, a Washington Capitals prospect, was a second-round pick. And there are more prospects in the pipeline, among them defensemen Lucas Johansen and Devante Stephens.

"He's getting to an age now where you'd think he'd be tired of being in cold rinks and everything, but I think he enjoys it," Hamilton said. "I think there's a few more years left in him. I sure hope there is."

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