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Rockets Over-Agers Look Ahead to Memorial Cup

June 10, 2015 Leave a comment


[originally published in the Kelowna Capital News, and on kelownarockets.com]
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Posted: May 19, 2015 – 23:01 PDT |
Written By: Dave Cunning

Photo Credits: Marissa Baecker @ shootthebreeze.ca

Photo Credits: Marissa Baecker @ shootthebreeze.ca

“We’re not done yet. We’ve still got the Memorial Cup.”

Even amidst the jubilation of capturing their club’s fourth WHL championship last week, Chance Braid and the rest of the Kelowna Rockets knew that they still have much work ahead – and even more glory left for them to attain.

“The Memorial Cup was our goal from the start of the season,” said Rockets’ injured left winger, Tyrell Goulbourne. “To make it there and win it.”

The reigning WHL champions will next face their rival league equals – OHL champion Oshawa Generals, QMJHL champion Rimouski Oceanic, and tournament host Quebec Remparts — in the quest to declare ultimate major junior supremacy. Kelowna’s sweep of the Brandon Wheat Kings in the WHL final – including a shutout in the series clinching game – was unquestionably impressive, but when the Rockets collide with the OHL and QMJHL champs, can they produce equally dominant results?

“They’re the top teams in each of their leagues, so it’s going to be tough,” said Goulbourne, whose return date from injury is still unknown heading into the Memorial Cup. “I feel like if we play our game and our way, I like our chances in that tournament.”

“It’ll be interesting to see how we stack up,” said assistant captain, Cole Martin. “I feel pretty confident in our group in there. We’ve got a lot of heart in that room and I think that’ll help us be successful.”

“When we go up there, we’re going to work our butts off and hopefully get the win,” added Braid. “We won the WHL championship, and we know we can do more. We’ve got role players, we’ve got goal scorers, we’ve got a goalie – with the team we’ve got, I think we’re going to do just fine.”

The Rockets are certainly bringing a capable group to the dance. Jackson Whistle’s four shutouts lead the CHL through the playoffs, as do Leon Draisitl’s three short-handed goals. The team should be well rested too – winning the WHL in only 19 games means they have played up to three less games than their upcoming opponents. After only losing three games in their WHL playoff stretch, the Rockets earned a winning percentage of 0.842% – both of those statistics top the Generals, Ramparts, and Oceanic.

Further, their expedited championship also granted them four more days of rest than the competing QMJHL teams, whose final series went to seven games.

While the Rockets will unquestionably match their eastern rivals in potency, a bigger question will be whether Kelowna can counter what their opposition brings to the table. They will have to put pucks past Goals-Against and Goals-Against-Average leader, Louis-Phiip Guindon of Rimouski (25; 0.184), and save percentage leader, Zachary Fucale of Quebec (.913%). They will also have to deactivate top point producers, Cole Cassels and Michael Dal Colle of Oshawa (31), and goal scoring leader, Adam Erne of Quebec (21).

For Goulbourne, Martin, and Braid – the Rockets’ three eldest statesmen – the Memorial Cup tournament is uncharted waters, as it is for the rest of Kelowna’s current roster. Aside from the club’s long term staff, no current Rockets have experience from the team’s last Memorial Cup appearance in 2009 to mine, nor from their tournament win in 2004. With that in mind, all three veterans will be looked to by their teammates for their savvy leadership in Quebec – on and off the ice – and not just because of their age. Goulbourne and Martin both recorded career highs in regular season goals, assists, and points this year, and Braid has never been more productive in the post-season in any statistical category.

Rockets fans will have to wait until May 31st to find out whether this trio of 20 year olds in their swan song season of junior hockey will help lead Kelowna to their second Memorial Cup title in franchise history, or not. One thing that is for certain though – no matter how the tournament plays out, none of the three will ever forget how their junior hockey careers concluded.

Follow Dave Cunning on Twitter @davecunning, read his blog at https://davecunning.wordpress.com and listen to his podcast at http://xppsp.podbean.com

Johansen brothers enjoy banter, but team up for success

June 10, 2015 Leave a comment

[originally published in the Kelowna Daily Courier on May 4, 2015]
[The extended audio version of this interview can be heard on my podcast]

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Rockets defenceman’s older brother is former Winterhawks star, NHLer

Posted: Monday, May 4, 2015 11:20 pm | by Dave Cunning

The Kelowna Rockets may have just beaten the Portland Winterhawks for the WHL’s Western Conference title, but while the two hockey teams were engaged in battle, there was a separate, smaller scale match-up also taking place in the background.

Ryan LucasDuring the series, Rockets defenceman Lucas Johansen was fighting a war of words with his brother, Columbus Blue Jackets centre Ryan Johansen, a Portland Winterhawks alumni. Due to conflicting season schedules, Ryan is rarely able to attend Lucas’ games in person, so the Johansen’s generally communicate through text or phone call. While generally supportive in nature through those mediums, the siblings made sure to mix in their share of barbs while Ryan’s former team squared off against Lucas’s current club.

“I’m always giving him a hard time,” said the elder Johansen, who turns 23 in July. “I told him I’m cheering for the Hawks. I’ve got texts from him saying, ‘I can’t wait to beat the Hawks tonight’ and stuff like that to rub it in on me. Deep down though, when I’m watching the games, one hundred percent I want to see him and his team be successful.”

Lucas was nearly convinced his brother was truly on his side all along.

“I think he was cheering for me, but I don’t really know,” admitted Lucas, 17. “He bugs me sometimes. He’ll send me the odd text saying ‘Go Hawks!’ as a joke, but for the most part, he’s rooting for the Rockets, I think.”

Beyond the give-and-take, Lucas has found his brother to be a well of experience and knowledge that he’s constantly able to draw from, especially during the Rockets’ series with Portland.

“He watched the games,” said Lucas. “When he played for Portland, they won the Western Conference as well, so he’s been through it. He can definitely give me pointers on what I can do better, and he definitely has. It’s good to have a guy like that in your family.”

Despite being five years apart in age, and thousands of miles away from each other at all times during the hockey season, Lucas and Ryan managed to become closer than ever this past year.

“Last year was really the first year my brother and I got really close,” Ryan recalled. “We basically did everything together. He started training with me every day. He’d stay over a lot of the time at my place. We really became close friends.

“It’s awesome that I can guide him. Whenever he needs an answer to a question, I can help him out, or show him how to do things differently.”

While mining all he can from big brother, Lucas also wants to put in his own work, and blaze his own trail in hockey. Ryan is in full support of that approach.

“Lucas is one of those kids that really drives himself,” said Ryan. “He’s got that inner drive where he wakes up every day and asks, ‘What can I do to get better at hockey?’ Whether it’s going to the gym, playing road hockey — anything that would help him be a better hockey player, he wants to do.”

“The thing I tell everyone about him is that his work ethic is non-stop,” Ryan continued in his praise for Lucas. “He’s doing everything he can right now to get in my position and play in the NHL. As an older brother and seeing him go through the process, I couldn’t be more proud of him and the way he works and carries himself.

“I love the way he plays the game. I think he can be a heck of a player. The way he’s been working, and the way he cares about the game and prepares himself, he’s definitely on the right track. He’s one of those kids that really wants to do it himself, and prove to people that he can be a great hockey player. Me playing in the NHL for a few years and having gone through the WHL, he’s got a lot of motivation to be successful. Seeing him do his own thing, I’m really proud of the way he’s developed, the way this year’s gone for him, and the way their team’s been playing. It’s been an absolute blast watching him and hearing about him grow.”

Beyond game-play matters, Ryan’s also been able to provide counsel on Lucas’ choice to play major junior rather than pursue an NCAA scholarship — a decision Ryan had to make for himself in 2009.

“Leaving a full ride scholarship is probably is the toughest hockey decision I’ve ever made in my life,” Ryan said. “To have a path set up, and to throw it all behind and just take a shot at hockey — the way I felt about my game, to me it was always the right decision. It was the thing I always wanted to do, and I just went with my gut feeling. I had the confidence that I could play with those players, and be successful out there. It didn’t happen overnight — it took a lot of hard work and a lot of teaching, but like my brother, we’re both motivated to be the best players we can be. I put my mind to it and found ways to get better. I had a lot of great players and people there to guide me through it, and so does Lucas now. He’s got a great organization in Kelowna, and he’s surrounded with great players and great coaches. That’s how kids become successful. The sky’s the limit for him, just like it is for me. It’s such a fun process to go through, and one of the things I always tell him is to enjoy it.”

With the likes of Rick Nash, Jeff Carter and Marian Gaborik all departing Columbus while he was on the Blue Jackets’ roster, Ryan found himself in a position where the team needed him to step up and fill holes.

In response, Johansen set career highs in assists and points last season, was voted into the NHL All-Star Game, and outscored all three of the aforementioned names.

With the Rockets now battling for the WHL championship, Kelowna will demand the same of their players if they are to capture the Ed Chynoweth Cup — Lucas included.

“They looked at me as a guy who needed to elevate his game and take that next step to be an elite player,” said Ryan. “The opportunity was mine. It was right in front of me, and I had to go grab it. I’ve still got so much room to improve. I feel I can grow a lot still as a player, and that’s what they’ve been telling me leaving Columbus to come back home, they still want to see another level, and I do as well. I prepare to do the things that make me successful on the ice, and that’s what I tell Lucas — that those experiences that I go through are what made me better.

“Everything’s not going to be the same for the both of us, but at least I can share those experiences with him, which hopefully will make us both better.”

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