Coach Ryan Huska admits his Kelowna Rockets were spinning their wheels through the first half of the Western Hockey League season.
But a few key acquisitions at the mid-season trade deadline and a run of playoff upsets later, the Rockets have their third WHL championship in seven years and are headed to the MasterCard Memorial Cup in Rimouski, Que.
Kelowna plays the first round-robin game of the four-team tournament against the host Oceanic at the 5,000-seat Colisee de Rimouski on Friday (Rogers Sportsnet, 5 p.m.). The Ontario Hockey League champion Windsor Spitfires meet the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League- winning Drummondville Voltigeurs on Saturday.
“We’re going there with a mindset that we want to win and we want them to enjoy the experience,” said Huska. “It’s a totally different culture and it will be the first time (in Quebec) for a lot of our guys.”
Rimouski, a city of 42,000 on the St. Lawrence River 500 kilometres northeast of Montreal, has become a QMJHL hot spot in the past decade.
The Oceanic won the Memorial Cup in 2000 with Brad Richards as their star player. Sidney Crosby helped them beat Kelowna at the 2005 tournament before losing in the final to the London Knights.
This time around, Windsor and Drummondville go in as the favourites, having finished first in their leagues and then beating all comers in the playoffs.
And Rimouski, although it finished sixth in the QMJHL, has home ice advantage.
It’s the Rockets who go in as underdogs, having finished sixth in the WHL.
But after dumping the Kamloops Blazers in four games, Kelowna knocked off Tri-City, Vancouver and then the top-seeded Calgary Hitmen, a team that finished 24 points ahead of the Rockets in the regular season, to win the league.
“We were inconsistent in the first half,” Huska said. “We were spinning our wheels trying to find our identity.
“The trades at the deadline really helped us become the team we are. Our goaltender (Mark Guggenberger) gave us a chance to win every night. (Enforcer) Ryley Grantham plays a physical style and increased the size of our team, and he’s a presence on the ice.”
But the biggest addition of all did not come in a trade. Scoring star Mikael Backlund, a Calgary Flames first-round draft pick from Sweden, joined the Rockets following the world junior championships in Ottawa in January.
He added to a team that has two members of Canada’s world junior team — forward Jamie Benn and six-foot-eight defenceman Tyler Myers, who this week signed a three-year contract with the Buffalo Sabres.
“Backlund fit in from Day 1,” added Huska. “He gave us another very dangerous threat up front.”
A concern is that the Rockets regularly use three 17-year-old defencemen — Collin Bowman, Tyson Barrie and Curt Gogol — but Huska said all three have had two seasons with plenty of ice time and “they’re really character kids.”
Drummondville only clinched it’s league title on Tuesday night with a hard-fought 3-2 win over the Shawinigan Cataractes.
The Voltiguers pounded their way through the QMJHL regular season and were steamrolling through the playoffs, including a win over Rimouski, until they lost star forward Chris DiDemenico for the season with a fractured thigh in Game 3. Although they won the next game 9-2, the Cats came back to force a seventh game.
Drummondville’s strength is on attack, where Boston draft pick Yannick Riendeau, the league scoring leader, and draft-eligible defenceman Dmitry Kulikov helped them lead the Q with 345 goals in the regular season.
The Spitfires were also dominant in the regular season and kept right on going in the playoffs, where they ousted John Tavares and the London Knights before taking out Brampton for the OHL title.
“We’re big and skilled and the guys bought into the coaching staff’s strategy,” said general manager Warren Rychel. “Our strengths are a good team defence concept, our depth at forward — we have seven guys with a point per game in the playoffs — and our size and toughness.”
This is a team loaded with players drafted by NHL clubs, including Calgary first-rounder Greg Nemisz and captain Harry Young, a defence prospect for New Jersey.
But the players the scouts will be watching are smaller but multi-skilled defenceman Ryan Ellis, named the OHL’s top defenceman and eligible for the draft in June, and Taylor Hall, a 17-year-old rising star who won’t qualify for the draft until 2010.
Coach Bob Boughner’s team also added three players who helped Kitchener reach the Memorial Cup last year — Ben Shuton, Scott Timmins and Josh Unice.
Several Spitfires have extra motivation in playing for their former captain, Mickey Renaud, who collapsed and died from a heart problem in February 2008.
The home team Oceanic spent most of the season ravaged by injuries to key players, including top centre Olivier Fortier. But when they finally got healthy, they won 20 of their final 21 regular-season games and went into the playoffs on a roll.
“That first half was a joke,” said coach Clement Jodoin. “When we’re healthy, we’re a different team”
The Oceanic attack is led by big winger Keven Veilleux, a Pittsburgh draft pick, and Philippe Cornet, an Edmonton prospect, but their strength is a strong team game and goaltending from Maxim Gougeon.