It’s been a month and a half since the Rockets wrapped up a disappointing campaign that saw the team win just five games, but that doesn’t mean that head coach Jason Stephens has had any time to rest and relax.
In fact, the Rockets’ boss has put over 8,000 kilometres on his car since the season wrapped, making recruiting trips to Calgary, Port Alberni, Gibsons and Trail, among others.
It’s a challenging time of the year for any Junior B coach, as scores of players strive to impress at Junior A camps, with KIJHL teams looked at as fallback options.
The challenge is compounded this year as the rebuilding Rockets have to try and prove that they aren’t in as bad of a situation as their 5-43-1-3 2015/2016 record might indicate.
According to Stephens, however, the reception he has received from potential recruits has been positive.
“For any Junior B team, this time of year, it’s a struggle to get commitments from players and stuff because players at the Midget AAA level and the higher levels are pursuing Junior A opportunities right now,” Stephens said.
“We kind of let those play out and we sort of hear a little bit further down the road.”
When he took over last year, Stephens recognized that the team needed a culture change and the organization worked hard to become a larger part of the community. That, as much as the team’s play on the ice, is what Stephens is trying to sell to recruits.
“I think people understand that we went through a rebuild and we paid some heavy prices to do what we did in Golden and change the culture around the team both off the ice and some habits on ice that we felt needed to change,” Stephens said.
One Rocket from a year ago already appears posed to make the jump to the next level. Forward Andrew Dunn has received a commitment from the Olds Grizzlys of the Alberta Junior Hockey League.
“One thing about Andy is that you can never deny the work ethic. The work ethic and puck ability that he has was surprising at times. The only knock on Andy, and everyone knows it, is he’s not the biggest guy in the world, but he’s definitely got the biggest heart,” Stephens said.
Forward Ryder Prue and goaltender Owen Sikkes are other Rockets who are taking their best shots at landing a spot in Junior A. While it remains to be seen which players will remain in the Rockets’ lineup come the fall, Stephens says he expects to have a dozen or so returnees.
The Rockets will host at least two camps over the spring and summer, with the first one coming at the end of the month in Fort Saskatchewan and the second coming in early June in Cochrane. A third camp could also be scheduled for early August.