Kristofer Westblom (MIN) of the Kelowna Rockets had become somewhat accustomed to his seat on the Kelowna Rockets bench during the playoff run last season. Such is life as a backup goaltender. That is, until the injury bug bites the starter.
Last spring, the Rockets reached the WHL final against the Brandon Wheat Kings. Near the end of game one, starting goaltender Derek Yeomans was injured in a controversial goalmouth collision, which resulted in a season-ending knee injury. Immediately, Westblom became the go-to guy.
“I was tremendously impressed with Kris,” head coach Jeff Truitt recalled. “As a great goalie, he stepped right in and as the series went on his confidence grew. In a very high pressure series, Kris became a real leader.”
Kelowna went on to win the series over Brandon, resulting in a trip to London, Ontario as the WHL’s representative at the Memorial Cup. The Rockets lost their first game to the Ottawa 67’s in double overtime, then faced the powerful London Knights less than 24 hours later.
“It was a real workload for Kris,” Truitt said. “He realized it and he wanted the responsibility. He was very poised and businesslike at the Memorial Cup. He showed his worth and really loved the pressure. We had a short turnaround after our first game, but Kris was ready to come back in game two.
“You have to be prepared and Kris handled it extremely well. He kept us in the games. I think he responded very well to facing opponents like Rimouski and London who had some very good veteran players.”
Westblom, 18, is a native of Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan. He is facing a big challenge of sorts again in Kelowna this season in the backup role to Yeomans, who has come back with a vengeance from last season’s injury. As a result, Westblom has appeared in only 19 games, posting a 11-5-1-1 record and a 3.20 GAA.
“Any goaltender has to be prepared to play every night,” said Truitt. “Yeomans plays most nights for us. But Kris has really done a good job of maintaining his competitive edge.”
Hockey’s Future spoke to Westblom recently about the road to Kelowna and his experiences in the WHL.
HF: What can you tell us about your Memorial Cup experience last season?
KW: It was something special, you know, I didn’t come out with any wins under my belt, but the personal exposure was huge. It was a good experience to play in front of that many people, it’s just something I’ll always remember. I thought I played well and the team really supported me. It was good to go in as a young guy and get my name out there.
HF: How have things worked out for you this season?
KW: Well, we have another good team here in Kelowna. The year started off for me a bit slow, but as of late I’ve been coming on with a few really strong performances and I hope to continue that.
HF: What are some of the challenges you find yourself dealing with as the backup goalie?
KW: Playing behind a guy like Derek Yeomans, an older goalie, he’s definitely a good goalie. I have to fight for my minutes every day in practice. Every day I come to the rink to practice I know I’m fighting for playing time and I think the challenge is to stay consistent in the games I play and in our practices.
HF: What do you feel are your strengths?
KW: I think I play my angles well and control rebounds to safe places where second opportunities aren’t threatening. And I like to play pucks and help my defensemen out.
HF: What areas are you working on?
KW: With Kim Dillabaugh here as the full-time goaltending consultant, we get a chance to work every day on small things in practice like overall positioning, to skating, to other techniques. It’s a huge benefit for me to have the coach that I have here.
HF: How did you enjoy your experience at the rookie tournament in Traverse City?
KW: Well, Minnesota has a great organization and I enjoyed being around their staff and some of the players who have been with the organization for a few years now. It was definitely a step up from the WHL. The play was a little quicker and the players were definitely a little stronger. I thought I played well and I’m looking forward to going back this coming fall.
HF: Have you been in contact with the Wild this season?
KW: Actually, their goaltending coach (Bob Mason) made it out here a couple of weeks ago and he got to watch a couple of games that I played. Right now they just want to see me get in as many starts as possible and continue to develop my game.
HF: Can you take us through your minor hockey days, leading up to junior?
KW: I played my bantam AA hockey in Meadow Lake, in the Centre Four League. I was basically the only goalie for most of the year, so I got lots of playing time and was fortunate to get drafted by the Rockets in the fourth round of the 2002 draft. Then I moved to Saskatoon for two years of midget AAA with the Contacts where things went really well. I played a lot of hockey there as a rookie and in my second year and was in two league finals. We played in the Mac’s Tournament in Calgary both years too.
HF: What are your personal expectations for the rest of the season?
KW: With the team we have this year I feel like we can make a good run at things again. I want to be a big part in that and support the team in any way I can. Whether I’m playing or on the bench, I just want to be there and play when I need to play and do the best that I can.
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