Rockets a spark for fire victims

KEN WIEBE -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 8:34 AM ET

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- When you've seen your adopted hockey community rise above the ashes of a natural disaster, the weight of a nation pining for a gold medal is much easier to deal with. For Team Canada defenceman Shea Weber, it's all a matter of perspective.

Weber, who regularly toils for the Kelowna Rockets in the WHL, was living downtown with his billets and saw hockey take a back seat to life when forest fires ravaged the Okanagan Valley of B.C. late in the summer of 2003.

"It was awkward," said Weber, a 6-foot-3, 220-pounder from Sicamous, B.C. "The whole town was under stress and everyone was panicking. Nobody knew what to expect because it wasn't slowing down. It was tough. Even our general manager (Bruce Hamilton) had to get evacuated from his house, so it affected all of us."

The community was deeply affected, but as the WHL season finally began, seeing the Rockets return the ice infused the city of Kelowna with enthusiasm.

Hockey became a refuge for many who suffered serious damage to their homes.

"There was a lot of focus on the fire and when we came back, I'm sure a lot of people came to watch to get their minds off that," said Weber. "To get down to the rink, bring their families down and get back in the swing of things."

Long after the fires had been extinguished, the community rallied again this past spring as Kelowna played host to the Memorial Cup, the national championship for Canada Tier I junior hockey.

In what can only be described as one of the feel-good stories of the year, the Rockets captured the Memorial Cup on home ice, capping a year that was filled with emotion.

An overflow crowd of 6,457 showed up at Prospera Place to see the Rockets defeat the Gatineau Olympiques 2-1 and finish the tournament with an unblemished record of 4-0.

"You couldn't have asked for anything more," said Weber. "I'm sure that helped out, as much as it could have. To be able to do it at home in front of the fans was terrific, we really wanted to do it for them."

Weber said the experience helped him prepare for his one and only shot at the World Junior Hockey Championship.

"It showed how much character matters, along with team chemistry," said Weber. "We didn't have the best team in that tournament by any means. We really came together and we knew we were going to win every game."

Weber has been paired with Calgary Flames prospect Dion Phaneuf since the beginning of Canada's evaluation camp and they've been a steadying force on the back end.

"It's nice to have two guys out there with that kind of skill and ability, but they also have that mean streak and edge, which is like a bonus," said Hockey Canada head scout Blair Mackasey.

"They both play the same way," added Team Canada head coach Brent Sutter. "They're big, strong guys who love to play physical."


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