KAMLOOPS — The Kelowna Rockets have been the blueprint of a winning hockey team for the last 15 years. Memorial Cup champions in 2004, coupled with four trips to the Memorial Cup tournament, including an overtime loss in the final in 2015.
They've also taken out the Blazers in the opening round in each of the last two playoffs.
"They do a lot of good things," said head coach Don Hay. "They're well-coached, they're well-managed, they're well-scouted. They have good players. They play the game the right way. When you win, winning builds tradition, and that tradition continues to keep on going."
The Blazers are striving to get back there. It's where they were in the 1990s. The first step is competing with teams like the Rockets.
The players coming back this season certainly haven't forgotten about last year's playoff defeat.
"Everyone in this dressing room is still feeling the effects of last year's playoffs. That was a heartbreaker for us," said 19-year-old centre Luc Smith. "We feel we didn't show up as well as we could've, especially in the first two games. We really need to be a better team, especially playing against them because they're our archrival. They're only two hours down the road, so it's going to be a fun game. I'm excited for this little series."
Smith is one of the veterans on a younger Blazer team that sports two 16 year olds in Connor Zary and Quinn Schmiemann, seven 17-year-old players, six 18 year olds, five 19-year-old guy, and then the three 20 year olds.
Smith likes how the group came together during the preseason, especially in the 5-3 win against Prince George last Friday.
"All our lines were clicking. We played good. We stuck to the system, as messy as preseason can get. We actually played a really solid game, both defensively and offensively. So it was good," said Smith, who will centre the third line alongside 20-year-old Nick Holowko and 17-year-old Jackson Shepard.
Hay says despite icing a younger team, expectations are to be a gritty, hard-working team that scores by committee, at least to start the season before a couple players elevate their game.
"We're really talking about standards," noted Hay. "We want to play the right way. We want to play a 200-foot game. We want to play hard. We want to play fast. We want to play with discipline."
Dylan Ferguson will start with Kyle Dumba backing him up in Friday's game against Kelowna. Max Palaga will be the back-up netminder to Ferguson in the home-opener against the Rockets on Saturday.
Lines for Friday's game in Kelowna:
SIGRIST PILON STUART
CHYZOWSKI ZARY BENJAFIELD
SHEPARD SMITH HOLOWKO
LOEWEN MAHOVLICH DEMOMIE
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