These past 18 months while COVID-19 all but shut down the hockey world, Bruce Hamilton had a chance to get a glimpse of what retirement might look like.
And the experience told Hamilton he’s not yet ready to move on to the next phase of his life.
His passion for hockey has been given a fresh jolt of enthusiasm with the long-awaited return of the Western Hockey League for the 2021-22 season.
As the owner, president and general manager of the Kelowna Rockets, along with being chairman of the WHL board of governors, the 64-year-old Hamilton finds himself back in the thick of familiar territory in September, overseeing the start of a new hockey season on and off the ice.
“You think about retirement and think about maybe it’s time to move on to your next phase in life, but for a bunch of us that 18 months off led a lot of us to think we still have lots left in the tank and lots to offer,” he said.
“If I felt my mind was not up for this anymore or not committed to the battles, I would move along and get someone else in here to run with it. But I learned I’m not quite ready to retire yet…I am thankful for the chance to return and to not take that for granted, reinvigorated and ready to go.”
The impact of COVID not only reminded Hamilton of how much he still loves hockey but also four or five months into the pandemic, it hit home as to how widespread an impact the virus had, with people losing their jobs and having to move away.
“At that point, you started to see people who had steady jobs all of a sudden have nothing as those jobs disappeared,” he reflected.
As training camp was underway this week for the Rockets, the shadow of COVID will continue to hang over the WHL and all junior-hockey leagues across Canada.
Already the Rockets division interlocking games with U.S.-based teams have been put off until November, leaving the B.C. teams to play among each other for the first month when the regular season starts Friday, Oct. 1, at Prospera Arena.
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|WHL hockey returns to Prospera Place with the Kelowna Rockets home opener on Friday, Oct. 1. (Marissa Baecker/Shoot the Breeze photo)|
“There are a lot of balls bouncing the air right now but we want to see the American teams participate as part of our division because just seeing the same (Western Conference) B.C. teams all the time is not the greatest for us going forward, so we hope to be crossing the border again to play by November,” he said.
After the 18-month delay, Hamilton said the club has seen about an 80 percent return on season ticket renewals, without having yet launched an advertising blitz and the season is still three weeks away.
“We have not really gone on the street yet selling so the season ticket renewal response has been heartwarming and we’re encouraged,” said Hamilton, noting the vaccine passport rules help ensure a safe environment for the fans while the players also are following strict disciplinary rules about what they can do and not do away from the rink.
While the Rockets absorbed the cost of seeing the Memorial Cup awarded to Kelowna cancelled in 2020 due to COVID, the team did get the ability to host a hub tournament in the spring giving players from several B.C. teams an opportunity to play and show their abilities to NHL scouts.
Hamilton said with the normalcy of the BCHL’s return it will be a positive for the city and the franchise.
The downtown business core, particularly restaurants, see a benefit from those 34 home games at Prospera Place this winter during the winter months, while Hamilton says the opportunity for their fans, especially seniors, to have a chance to enjoy a social activity and be around other people in the community again is not lost on him.
“One thing I do know is we have tremendously loyal fans and we want to get them back and enjoying hockey and give something back to help the community return to some sense of normal.”
On the ice, Hamilton said the Rockets again enter the season with the objective to win but admits head coach Kris Mallette will be faced with challenges assessing where players are at under game conditions early in the season.
“We have ‘05 players we drafted two years ago that we haven’t seen play much or at all until training camp started this week. They haven’t played many if any games for the past 18 months, just practice and skill development training. We don’t know how many of these players are going to react in actual games.
“That will present some great challenges for the coaching staff at the outset but we just have to be patient.”
Hamilton expects key contributions from returning Czech forward Pavel Novak and former top bantam draft pick Trevor Wong, along with defencemen Tyson Feist and Noah Dorey. All four players have been invited to NHL training camps this month.
Hamilton is particularly high on Dorey, who earned an invitation to the Boston Bruins camp, as a player who slipped under the radar with the absence of WHL games.
“I believe if (Dorey) had played a full season for us last year he would have been a high draft pick. But I give credit to the Bruins for going out and finding players who have not been seen enough in regular gameplay. If they sign him to a contract, it is a young player they acquire without having to use a draft pick,” he said.
While the team made several older player acquisitions to gear up for a Memorial Cup run two years ago, several of those players have moved on, but Hamilton notes the Rockets did not give up any prospects in those trades while building up that prospect cupboard from bantam drafts Hamilton they have stockpiled a group of talented and competitive players.
While the possibility of a Memorial Cup bid returning to Kelowna is talked about, Hamilton said there is no guarantee that will happen and “we’re not expecting anybody to be sorry for us” in the aftermath of COVID cancelling Kelowna’s chance to host the tournament for a second time.
“It’s the Quebec league’s turn to host this season and Ontario is supposed to be next year, but not really heard anything yet about what is happening there yet,” he said.
“Regardless, it is always important for us to be a winner on the ice for our fans. We never go into a year thinking we are in a rebuild. We retool, we don’t rebuild.”