Kamloops Blazers Already Getting The Breaks In “Special K” Battle
While most pundits agreed that the Western Hockey League’s B.C. division shaped up as a great battle between the “Special K’s”, Kamloops, Kelowna and Kootenay, nobody would have predicted the early season fortunes of two of these teams, the Kelowna Rockets and Kootenay Ice would be so affected by both bad and good luck on behalf of their prospective players.
First the Kootenay Ice. While most agree that the Ice would have been battling for top spot in the division, this is where the good and bad luck come into play. Dan Blackburn, a standout goalkeeper from day one in the WHL goes to the New York Rangers camp and plays well enough to not only earn a contract, but an opening day roster spot behind incumbent Mike Richter as a nineteen year old. While not really a surprise, the Ice certainly were certainly hoping to have the stalwart back in net. Now the Ice will go with two unproven goaltenders, who though hold promise, aren’t the “sure thing” that Blackburn would have provided.
Then the bad luck strikes as nineteen year old offensive sparkplug Jarett Stoll cuts his hand badly while using a knife to separate frozen steaks. The early prognosis is that Stoll will miss eight weeks and the Ice losing his considerable offensive talents for that time.
With a two win and three loss start, the Ice won’t want to give up too much ground to the other “Special K’s” early or it could be a long road back to secure a home ice date in the first round of the playoffs. This could be crucial with Kootenay, Kamloops and Kelowna all being so strong, home ice could be the difference as it is likely one of these three teams won’t make it out of the first round with the B.C, division playoff structure seeing first playing fourth and second playing third.
The Kelowna Rockets have seen a lot of pre-season ups and downs as well, first with the acquisition of Chuck Kobasew’s playing rights from the Prince George Cougars, Rocket hopes soared. Those hopes went into the stratosphere when owner/G.M Bruce Hamilton managed to clear the next hurdle which was getting Kobasew to forego his final three years of a full ride scholarship at Boston College.
All seemed set for the Rockets to open the season with arguably the single most dangerous offensive threat in the league playing on an already deep front end with the likes Rory McDade, Kiel McLeod, Carsen Germyn and Tomas Oravec. At the same time, Bruce Hamilton was dealing with the some bad luck for the Rockets, trying to obtain the release of Oravec from a contract he’d signed in the Czech Republic over the summer, which he apparently signed over being despondent at getting overlooked by the NHL in the June draft. While no one is quite sure what the fallout of the Oravec situation will be, the Rockets keep hearing reports from the Calgary Flames camp about the impressive play of Kobasew, who scores five goals in six pre-season games. Then comes the worst news off all, Kobasew makes the Flames opening day roster and could suit up as long as a contract is secured which appears to be all but done. With these two offensive sparkplugs out of the line-up for the foreseeable future, the Rockets hopes will be based on how quickly wily coach Marc Habschied can get his team to gel.
The Rockets offense is still considerable with Germyn, McLeod, McDade and a cast of youngsters showing promise, but replacing Kobasew and Oravec will not be possible, with only the hopes that something can be done regarding Oravec’s return softening the blow somewhat. Habschied, a master at getting players to buy into a solid defensive program, will need to be especially proficient this year as he will be breaking in two unproven goaltenders in Josh Lepp and second year man Jason Stone, with a defence that at this time appears thin with only Bart Rushmer being a proven commodity, however Euro draft Tomas Slovak looks the part of a solid defenseman as does the fasr improving Richie Regehr.
With a record of two wins and a tie to open the season, it looks as though Habschied and the Rockets thus far have been successful, but with only nine goals from those three games, it will be tough to win one of the top two spots when you are in a lot of one goal games with unproven goaltending.
While the Rockets and Ice have been dealing with misfortune, the Blazers have been fortunate in a lot of areas. The Blazers opened the season with only two games in the first fourteen days of the season, allowing for most of their players to return from pro camp. The schedule was also kind in that they opened with games against two teams most thought might struggle early, the expansion Vancouver Giants and the very young Seattle Thunderbirds.
After picking up two wins in those games, the Blazer roster will be almost complete for game three as Jared Aulin (108 point guy last year returned for the Seattle game) and Shaone Morrisonn have been returned by the Kings and Bruins respectively. Only tough forward Colton Orr and sophomore Paul Brown are missing from the line-up as Orr serves the final four games of a six game suspension handed out in last seasons first round playoff loss to the Spokane Chiefs and Brown rehabs a broken ankle from a summertime mishap.
Kamloops can only hope the good fortune continues as a good start could very well be parlayed into a strong playoff position that will likely be crucial this season. The early return of Jared Aulin, team captain and last season’s leading point producer for the Blazers, could turn out to be key, as the Blazers will be firing on all cylinders early with a load of talented offensive threats to play along side him.
Last season’s CHL Rookie of the Year, Scottie Upshall will not only be looking to top his rookie point total of eighty-six points, he’s also playing with the added incentive of it being his draft year. Third year center, Eric Christensen, an immensely talented player, will also be looking to improve on his forty four points of a year ago and the Blazers will be looking for a consistent effort nightly from the young man who could surprise many in his first year of draft eligibility.
There are no excuses for the talented and deep Blazers, who, unlike the other two leading contenders for the B.C. division crown, have had little adversity so far.