December 31, 2019
By Todd Saelhof, courtesy Calgary Sun
The Okanagan Rockets are trending these days.
They’re headed upwards and onwards in every aspect of their midget hockey existence.
Heck … it’s in their name, although the real proof is in the season so far.
In B.C. league play, they’ve skyrocketed to a lofty 20-2-1-1 record.
The coach who helped lift them to top spot back home, Simon Ferguson, earned a Christmas promotion to take the reins of the B.C. junior league’s West Kelowna Warriors.
And here at the Mac’s AAA Midget Hockey Tournament, the Rockets blasted off to a 3-0 start to earn their way into the eight-team playoff.
“The kids have a saying,” said Rockets interim head coach Rob Evers.”It’s ‘#EMO’ — Everybody Moves On.”
Yup, they’re moving on here at the Mac’s, alright.
Finally, Evers will tell you, since that’s been a no-go every other time he’s attended the tourney with the Kelowna-based crew.
“I’ve been here five times and never made the playoffs, and I’ve been here with teams that have only lost five games in the regular season and go 2-0-2 and 3-1 here and haven’t made the playoffs,” said Evers, who’s the director of hockey operations for the entire Okanagan and Thompson Zone program. “So this is good.
“And we haven’t had to change a lot of what we do since we got here — a lot of teams are playing the trap, which nobody does in B.C,” Evers continued. “For me, I’ve coached a lot of good teams, and this is the best one I’ve seen in midget in 10 years. Our program’s good.”
Good enough to be playoff-bound at the Mac’s.
The Rockets opened with a 6-2 victory over the Okotoks Bow Mark Oilers on Day 1. After an off-day Friday, they followed with a 4-0 shutout of the Swift Current Legionnaires on Saturday. Sunday’s 3-1 beat of the Fort Saskatchewan BP Rangers then propelled them into the playoffs. Their only blemish thus far was a 2-1 loss Monday afternoon to the Lloydminster Inland Steel Bobcats at Max Bell Centre.
“Our kind-of mid-season goal was to make the playoffs here and then see how it goes for the rest of the tournament,” Evers said. “And then back home obviously, we want to win our league and see who we meet from Alberta (to play for the right to go to the national championship, the Telus Cup). The last team from B.C. to go to the Telus Cup was Tyson Jost’s Rockets back in 2014. It’s a struggle to beat Alberta to get there.
“But nobody on our team talks about the Telus Cup. Everybody talks about the next game.”
That next game for the Rockets comes in Tuesday’s quarterfinals at Max Bell against the defending B.C. league champs, the Cariboo Cougars (noon).
The ultimate goal here, of course, is to win Wednesday’s finale at the Saddledome.
“We want to win,” said Rockets left-winger Zac Funk, a prospect with the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen. “I think we have a good chance of that. We have a lot of depth, a lot of guys in our room who are all-around good players. We all do things to help us win — we all contribute in our own way.”
Funk’s own four goals and six points have paced the team and are both among the best statistics of the tournament.
“I’m having an alright week,” Funk said with a smile. “It won’t matter without getting the win. I really want to win this tournament. It’s pretty big — it’s pretty special.”
Evers, however, figures what’s really special is seeing his kids move onward in hockey — something with which this year’s squad seems to be ever-blessed.
All but two players are affiliated with a WHL team or with a Junior ‘A’ club.
“The success of the program has been good for kids moving forward for what their goals are next year,” Evers said. “Everybody moves on.”
Funk himself has already enjoyed a big taste of the junior life. He played in four games with the Hitmen last year and has suited up for eight more already this season.
“It’s a lot harder than anything I’ve done before, so it’s a good test,” Funk said. “But it’s easier to come back to midget because you play against better players when you go up in the WHL and then you can do your thing when you’re back playing in midget.
“If you want to get to the next level, you have to compete hard to improve so you can make it there,” added Funk, a 16-year-old native of Vernon, B.C. “You’ve got to play your hockey all the time. You can’t stoop down to the level of the other teams.”
Indeed, you’ve got to keep moving on.