Mem Cup old hat for Rockets

RYAN PYETTE -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:28 AM ET

The Memorial Cup tournament is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that keeps happening for the Western Hockey League champion Kelowna Rockets.

The Rockets, who beat the Brandon Wheat Kings in five games to claim their second league title in three years, are making their third straight trip to the Cup tourney. That's one short of the record by the New Westminster Bruins, who went to four straight from 1975-78.

The Peterborough Petes (1978-80) also went to three straight Cups, as did the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (1991-93).

Kelowna won last season's title on home ice with an emotional 2-1 victory over the Gatineau Olympiques, a win that revitalized a community still reeling from forest fires that destroyed more than 200 homes and forced the temporary evacuation of about 30,000 people from the city of 105,961 on Okanagan Lake in British Columbia.

The Rockets, who fell in the semifinal of the 2003 tournament won by the Kitchener Rangers in Quebec City, used stout team defence and fine goaltending by 20-year-old Kelly Guard to prevail in 2004.

With Guard as gatekeeper, Kelowna surrendered just three goals on 102 shots in four games in front of the home-town fans.

There are 14 players back from that championship squad in London this week, including Canadian world junior team defenceman Shea Weber, who was tabbed as playoff MVP in Kelowna's latest run to the WHL title.

There are a few key changes to these Rockets.

Last year's Cup-winning coach, Marc Habscheid, who led Canada to a silver medal at the world hockey championships in Austria, gave way to Jeff Truitt, his assistant of four years, at the start of the season.

Habscheid knew he was leaving behind a team that had another long playoff run in its future.

"This is such a good situation . . . and that makes it difficult," he had told the Kelowna Daily Courier.

Guard is also gone, but the Rockets followed their usual steady recipe for success this season -- they allowed only 139 goals in 72 league games to finish second in the WHL's B.C. Division with a 45-13-12-2 record. They also gave up just 46 goals in 24 playoff games.

Still, the second-biggest question surrounding Kelowna heading into the Cup tournament this weekend is between the pipes.

Derek Yeomans, who played in 54 games for the Rockets this season, was injured in the series opener against Brandon and hasn't returned. Kelowna will likely go with 18-year-old backup Kristofer Westblom, although WHL commissioner Ron Robison has granted permission for Everett Silvertips goalie Mike Wall to practise with the team.

Wall could be added to the roster as an emergency backup if Yeomans' season is over, but he will not be allowed to play unless Westblom is also injured.

The biggest question surrounding this Kelowna team this week? That's easy: Why does a team named the Rockets have a dragon for a logo on its sweaters?

According to website Britishcolumbia.com, Kelowna's Okanagan Lake "is home of the legendary Ogopogo," a Canadian version of the Loch Ness Monster.

Visitors and locals alike are warned to stay alert -- there's a $2-million reward for solving the legend.

Kelowna, incidentally, is a native word for grizzly bear.

The Rockets nickname was passed on when the team jetted off to Kelowna from Tacoma, Wash., in 1995 (the same year Rimouski received its franchise from Saint-Jean).

Tacoma was granted a WHL expansion team in 1991 but the outfit lasted just four seasons with limited success.

The move to Kelowna proved prosperous. Besides the Memorial Cup and two league titles, the Rockets have won three division titles in the past five years and have been one of the CHL's most consistent franchises in that span.

Weber, a Nashville pick who went undrafted in his WHL selection year five seasons ago, appears to be the next blue-liner heading toward those heights. He scored nine goals and 17 points in the playoffs and controls the pace in Kelowna's back end.

The Rockets will take scoring whenever, and from wherever, they can get it. Their leading scorer, Tyler Spurgeon, had 21 goals and 62 points -- less than half what Rimouski's Sidney Crosby and London's Corey Perry posted this season.

Top goal scorer Justin Keller had 31 goals -- again, less than half Crosby's 66 tallies.

But that doesn't mean Kelowna is incapable of lighting the lamp on a regular basis. The team did chalk up eight goals -- including five on the power play -- in the series clincher of the WHL final on the road against Brandon.

The Rockets have a balanced attack, which is deadly with the man advantage. Keller had 15 power-play goals this season and Spurgeon had 13.

Judging from lineage, it also appears that even a three-goal lead late in the game against Kelowna won't be safe.

After all, the Rockets' top playoff scorer this spring was 20-year-old forward Tyler Mosienko, a Winnipeg native whose grandfather Bill holds the NHL record for scoring three goals in 21 seconds for Chicago in a game against the New York Rangers on March 23, 1952.

KELOWNA ROCKETS

Home rink: Prospera Place (6,800 capacity)

Colours: Teal, red, black and white

GM/Owner: Bruce Hamilton

Head coach: Jeff Truitt; assistants: Ryan Huska, Larry Keating

NHL draft picks: Defenceman Shea Weber (Nashville), defenceman Mike Card (Buffalo), forward Lauris Darzins (Nashville), forward Blake Comeau (Islanders), forward Tyler Spurgeon (Edmonton), forward Justin Keller (Tampa Bay), forward Troy Bodie (Edmonton)

Memorial Cup experience: Lots. The Rockets return 14 players from last year's CHL champion team and eight more who played in Quebec City in 2003.


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