EDMONTON, AB - The Edmonton Oilers are used to traveling into B.C. during September. From 2010 until 2017 the team would make a trip to Penticton as part of their training camp schedule. An extra-long weekend spent in the interior of B.C. playing in the Young Stars Tournament was always a sunny way to start the hockey season.
While the Oilers may get back to that event or something like it next year, in 2019 there would be another September swing through wine country. Under the cover of darkness and after a 6-2 win over Calgary on Friday night, the team arrived in Kelowna.
The weekend, as explained by Head Coach Dave Tippett, would start with a day off on Saturday. A chance for the team and a few extras to hang out and do some bonding.
Sunday is a practice day. Sunday night is a team dinner. On Monday, another practice, followed by a flight home to resume the pre-season portion of their schedule.
A nice, short getaway before it's crunch time for final cuts and the start of a new season. The one-hour flight from Edmonton to Kelowna doesn't depict the amount of time traveled by Leon Draisaitl from the Western Hockey League team he played for before eventually re-joining the Edmonton Oilers.
It was around this time last season that Leon was taking a trip down memory lane. The Deutschland Dangler with the chance to go home to Cologne. Play against his father while being reminded of where it all got started. Here we are a year later and a return to another place that has meant a lot to the young forward.
"It's like going back to where it all started," Draisaitl said. Seems a little funny to hear that considering he had already put together a 105-point season in Prince Albert and was the Oilers third-overall pick in 2014.
It's hard to believe and actually, remember, how a 50-goal, 105-point Oiler from a season ago started his NHL career at a different pace.
He was a rookie and after 37 games in Edmonton and a stat line of two goals and seven assists, the Oilers made a decision... A big decision.
They were going to send Draisaitl back to junior hockey.
"At the time it was tough," Draisaitl explained.
Who could blame him for feeling that way? But he never, ever let it impact his play or his development. Instead, he turned his time in Kelowna into exactly what Edmonton wanted. The next step towards greatness.
"I thought it was good for me and it helped me become an impact player in the NHL," said the 23-year-old.
The sometimes centre slash winger took off with the Rockets. He had 19 goals and 53 points in just 32 games. Along with personal success, his Rocket teammates were also taking off.
Kelowna made it through all other WHL opponents and advanced to the Memorial Cup. Leon played in 19 playoff games and added another 28 points to his resume to snag post-season MVP honours.
He put up seven more points in five games at the Memorial Cup to win the Ed Chynoweth Trophy as top scorer and the Stafford Smythe Memorial Trophy as tournament MVP. Everything went as planned until the final, when Kelowna lost in overtime 2-1 to Oshawa.
"It was not the end we wanted but I had a great time on a really good team," is the way Draisaitl described his short but sweet stay with Kelowna.
It seems so long ago but the memories will slowly trickle back upon Leon's return to Kelowna. Since he left, the young man blossomed into a 50-goal man. He plans on seeing his old billets and then focusing on a new season.
It will be the next chance for the one time Rocket Man to have a blast with the Edmonton Oilers.