If there is a date on the WHL schedule that Calgary hockey fans might want to prepare for, it’s February 28.
That’s the night the Kelowna Rockets will invade the Pengrowth Saddledome for a Western Hockey League tilt against the Calgary Hitmen. Not only are the Hitmen the class of the WHL’s eastern conference, but the Kelowna Rockets are quickly emerging as a very definite threat to challenge for the western conference title.
In addition to the importance of the game itself, a pair of Calgary Flames prospects will don jerseys for the visiting Rockets. Ryley Grantham, selected in the sixth round, 168th overall, at the 2008 NHL Entry Draft and Mikael Backlund, selected in the first round, 24th overall in 2007 will provide a glimpse at the future for fans of the Flames.
Backlund moves to North America
Backlund has been on the world stage for a couple of seasons now, most notably at the past two World Junior Championships where Team Sweden has won consecutive silver medals. His arrival in Kelowna, which was negotiated in part at the most recent WJC in Ottawa, is somewhat of a pleasant surprise. The Rockets used the 43rd pick at the 2007 CHL Import Draft to select Backlund, a player many thought would become a mainstay in the Swedish Elite League during his formative years of development. But two years later, risk has been rewarded in Kelowna.
“This will certainly be his only year with us,” said Rockets head coach Ryan Huska. “We won’t get him back. If he doesn’t play with the Flames next year, I assume they’ll use him with their AHL affiliate. If he keeps progressing, I think he’ll have a good chance to make the Flames. He’s got the professional mindset where he is doing everything the right way because he wants to play in the NHL.”
Earlier this season, Backlund languished through an unproductive first half with the second division team in his hometown of Vasteras, located about one hour from Stockholm, Sweden. When word began to spread at the WJC that the Flames might be interested in having Backlund play the second half of the season in North America, the Rockets paid serious attention.
Following the WJC, Backlund, who will celebrate his 20th birthday on March 17, arrived in Kelowna after suiting up for one game with the Flames. Since then, he has grown accustomed to the WHL rigors and has provided a consistent offensive contribution.
“He has steadily improved since day one here,” Huska said. “When he first started, he was cautious in the room, almost just feeling guys out because he didn’t want to step on any toes for the first two or three games. Since then he has played like everybody knows he can play. He’s a very dynamic player that controls pucks all over the ice. He’s fun to watch and sometimes we catch ourselves sitting back just watching him play. He’s a special player and we’re very fortunate to have him.”
Rockets Director of Player Personnel, Lorne Frey, echoes the head coach’s comments.
“Backlund has been very good, especially the last five or six games as he has gotten used to the league and to his teammates. He continues to get better and better. As he continues to develop and get to know how to use his teammates, I think he’ll generate more and more for us.
“No question this will be his only season here. We’re fortunate to have a young man like him to come in here and help us. He’s well liked by the other players and I think he’s enjoying his experience here. Since he’s come along, and with a couple of the other trades we made, it has kind of rejuvenated the hockey club and there is certainly a lot more jump and a lot more competitiveness here.”
Indeed, Backlund and crew have been on fire of late. Kelowna is 9-0-1-0 in its last 10 games and is challenging the defending Memorial Cup champion Spokane Chiefs for third place overall in the WHL’s western conference. The Rockets have been somewhat inconsistent this season, but the recent run has confirmed they are now a force to be reckoned with. And Backlund knows something special is happening.
“I enjoy being here with such a good team and this has been a lot of fun,” he said, prior to a Feb. 13 home game against the Vancouver Giants. “This is a very good league. I think it is a very fast and intense game in the WHL. There are a lot of very skilled players here. It is a good next step for me, as I want to play in the NHL. I just love the tempo, it is very fast here.”
When queried about the transition from hockey in Sweden to the WHL, the 6’0, 195-pound Backlund is very upfront in his comparison.
“Well, with the smaller rinks here, the game is faster,” he said. “It is more physical and more intense and I like that much more. Back home it is a bit slower and there is more room to do things. So far over here, I really think this is a better fit for my style of play.
“There are some different shooting angles on the bigger ice surface. And one thing for sure is it is harder to get out from the corners to the net here. With more space back home, there is more room to make the moves to get to the net. There is not quite as much space here. We put more pucks on net here and then crash the net.
“It is very tiring here, the play in the corners. But that is a very good part of the game for me to be learning.”
“It’s a tournament I love and it has been a great experience to have played those games,” he said. “All the players there are very close to playing in the NHL, so I am proud to have been able to represent Sweden. It is important to put on that Swedish team jersey. I suppose I have to settle for two silver medals, I will not have the gold. But two silvers is very good too.”
Immediately after the WJC, Backlund was shuttled to Calgary where he spent a few days with the Flames while the logistics of his move to play hockey in North America were tended to by the NHL team. On Jan. 8, he played 10:44 against the New York Islanders in Calgary, where he hit a goal post on his first shift. It’s his only NHL game to date, an experience he will remember for a long time.
“That was probably the best day of my life,” Backlund smiled. “Obviously the game is faster and the players are a more skilled. And every pass is on the tape. I think in the NHL you have to be very, very focused during every game. The good players play very good hockey every night.”
As for the remainder of this season, Backlund hopes to be part of a long playoff run. He’ll assess his plans for next season along with the Flames during the off-season.
“After this season, hopefully it ends in May after we win the Memorial Cup,” he said. “I will go home to Sweden for a couple of months and think about what I will do next. I know I will go to the Flames main camp and try to make the team. If I do not make the team, I will talk with Mr. Sutter and Mr. Keenan and we will decide if I should play in Europe or in the AHL.”
Through 15 games with Kelowna, Backlund has scored seven goals and eight assists.
Grantham rejuvenated in final junior season
In Grantham’s case, there is no secret as to his primary role in Kelowna. The 6’4, 205-pound forward arrived via the trade route from the Moose Jaw Warriors. The move has been an awakening for the noted pugilist, a soft-spoken big man from Hanna, Alberta who is playing in his third full season in the WHL.
“I’m pretty fortunate to have gotten the opportunity here,” Grantham said. “These are my last few months in the WHL as a 20-year-old, so it’s a thrill to be with a club that could put together a good run through the end of the season. We have a very good, deep team here and we are really beginning to gel. We’re learning how to win together.”
Hanna, Alberta is located a couple of hours northeast of Calgary and is also home to Jim Nill, an NHL executive whose name inevitably arises in conjunction with speculation about future general manager positions in the league. Nill, who was a tough customer during his playing days in the NHL, is related to Grantham’s father.
“I was born and raised there,” Grantham smiled when asked about his hometown. “I played minor hockey there up until peewee before I had to leave town to play at higher levels.”
The prairie lifestyle toughness is clearly evident in Grantham’s stature and mannerisms, a hockey package folks in central Alberta are all-too-familiar with.
“The tough going, well, it’s an aspect of my game that I suppose I’m pretty good at and if I’ve got to do it as a big guy I’ll make my presence felt,” Grantham said. “I can help to create room for guys like Colin Long (PHX) and Jamie Benn (DAL) and Ian Duval and Backlund to be able to do their thing.”
Grantham is also very happy to be among another famous Alberta hockey family, the Sutters, through his association with the Calgary Flames.
“Hey, it’s Calgary and they’re the Sutter family,” Grantham shrugged when asked about the Alberta connection. “They’re great guys. They’ll fight for you and they’ll fight with you. And you know, I think Darryl Sutter is happy that both Backs (Backlund) and I are here in Kelowna together with a first class organization.”
And the Rockets are clearly pleased to have Grantham on board during the stretch run.
“He’s a big strong guy who has an obvious presence out there,” Frey said. “Ryley is very likely one of the tougher individuals in the league. He’s working hard here on his game, particularly his speed and puck skills. We need him to be able to play to be effective. We’re working hard with him to ensure he shows improvement.”
Coach Huska likes what he sees in Grantham.
“He’s a guy who has really helped our group feel bigger out there, if that makes sense” Huska said. “Ryley has done wonders adding toughness here.
“That doesn’t mean he has to drop the gloves all the time to be tough, but I think the guys like that they have a big body out there who can be protective if need be. That’s an important element he’s brought here. Another important thing is that he is a big body we can use in front of the net and on the power play. He has good hands for a guy his size.”
And speaking of hands, Grantham’s status with the Rockets was actually in jeopardy shortly after his arrival in Kelowna. In a home game against the Vancouver Giants on Jan. 24, Grantham collided with an opponent along the boards and emerged with a nasty gash on his left hand.
“I don’t know, really, it was a freak thing,” he explained while brandishing a zipper-like scar near the base of his thumb. “I got hit along the boards and my glove came off as I was falling down. I don’t know whose skate it was, but it grazed my hand and the cut was pretty nasty. I could see the tendon moving around in there, it was pretty gross.
“I was fortunate I didn’t damage any ligaments or tendons. I’m good to go now, it’s pretty much healed and we just took about 20 stitches out a couple days ago. When I get out there on the ice, it is in the back of my mind, but you know, I just have to play through it.”
Thankfully, what had potential to be a serious, long-term injury, will not keep Grantham out of the Rockets plans over the course of their final 15 regular season games and playoffs.
“I think he’s pretty well healed now,” Huska said. “Every game he’s showing us more. Down the stretch and into the playoffs, we see him being a pretty effective player here.”