The Kelowna Rockets didn’t realize their ultimate goal in the spring of 2017.
Still, a fourth consecutive appearance in the Western Conference final further confirmed the Rockets’ enduring reputation as one of the Western Hockey League’s most consistent franchises.
After a 45-win season under the guidance of first-year head coach Jason Smith, the Rockets took down both the Kamloops Blazers and Portland Winterhawks, before succumbing to Matthew Barzal and the Seattle Thunderbirds in the conference final.
The Thunderbirds went on to win the WHL title.
“It didn’t end the way we wanted but I was very proud of those guys, we worked our bags off all year,” said Rockets’ captain Rodney Southam. “I thought we did a lot better than most people thought we were going to do, so I have nothing but good to say about the guys in that room.”
Led by the likes of Nick Merkley, Calvin Thurkauf, Dillon Dube and Kole Lind, the Rockets upgraded at the trade deadline with the acquisitions of Reid Gardiner and Carsen Twarynski. Both fit well into the team’s plans and made contributions as the Rockets gelled into a legitimate contender late in the 2016-17 WHL season.
But in the end, the Thunderbirds were one obstacle the Rockets couldn’t get past.
“I had a good feeling about this team, the pathway we were on from the trade deadline on, I really felt we had the team to win,” said GM Bruce Hamilton. “Our team got a lot better, I’m pretty sure people didn’t think we were going to sneak up on them like we did.
“I tried to explain to our players how hard it is to get there and to win,” he added. “We’re very fortunate to have been there (the Memorial Cup) five times before, so to get that close and see it slip away is always disappointing.”
Other than winning a title, Jason Smith couldn’t have asked for much more from his first tour of duty with Kelowna.
“It was outstanding,” said Smith, who led Kelowna to 45 regular season victories. “As a staff, the work ethic, the time the players put in and the energy they brought every day to the rink, it was great to come to the rink. To be around a group of kids or young men or whatever you want to call them.
“They were well-behaved, they worked hard, they were coachable and good people. It was a great experience.”
Early in 2017, Kelowna forward Dillon Dube played with Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championship and fell just one step short of the ultimate goal.
Dube and his Canadian teammates settled for silver after a heartbreaking 5-4 shootout loss to the U.S. in the championship final.
“The way it ended is tough but it happens,” Dube said upon his return home. “It’s great that we took it that far.
“I think both teams were playing great and I think everybody in Canada is pretty proud of our team, the way we played.”
Dube, along with teammate Cal Foote, both made Team Canada’s final roster for the 2018 WJC in Buffalo which begins on Boxing Day.
Meanwhile, Foote was one of two Rockets chosen early in the 2017 NHL entry draft. Foote went in the first round, 28th overall to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Kole Lind was a second round choice, 33rd overall, by the Vancouver Canucks.
In August, Rockets’ forward Nolan Foote won gold with Team Canada at the Ivan Hlinka world U18 men’s hockey championship in the Czech Republic.