Kelowna Rockets capture Ed Chynoweth Cup

This year, Nick Merkley and the Kelowna Rockets won the WHL title in a four-game sweep of the Brandon Wheat Kings

It seems almost impossible for a WHL team to win a title without having a Greater Trail tie in.

Last year it was  Luke Bertolucci of Montrose and the Edmonton Oil Kings, the year prior it was the Portland Winter Hawks’ and former Trail Smoke Eater Joey Baker, and Bertolucci again in 2012.

This year, Nick Merkley and the Kelowna Rockets won the WHL title in a four-game sweep of the Brandon Wheat Kings with a 3-0 shut out win on Wednesday.

Although a Calgary native, Merkley’s parents grew up in Rossland and his grandparents Ivan and Bev Bell and Dorothy Merkley still live in Greater Trail.

The 17-year-old phenom has been nothing short of magnificent in leading the WHL in playoff assists, 22, and is second in points with 27. He was named WHL player of the week on Monday after netting three points in Games 1 and 2 of the series.

Merkley also scored the winner in Game 2 and added the insurance marker on Wednesday in the 3-0 championship victory that saw the largest hockey crowd since winning the Memorial Cup in 2004 pack Prospera Place.

In front of a capacity audience of 6,428, the Rockets defeated the Wheat Kings to claim their fourth Ed Chynoweth Cup title since 2003.

“To jump off the bench and throw your helmet and gloves off is a great feeling,” Rockets captain Madison Bowey told Kelowna Capital News reporter Warren Henderson. “You don’t get it too often, to achieve it with a great group of guys like this is special and it’s something we’ll remember for the rest of our lives.”

The teams were scoreless through two periods Wednesday, before the Rockets big guns stepped up early in the third with a pair of shorthanded goals.

Leon Draisaitl tipped a pass from Bowey past Jordan Papirny for his 10th playoff goal at the 1:10 mark. Just 19 seconds later, Rourke Chartier was the beneficiary of a gaffe by Papirny, stealing the puck and depositing it in the open cage for his 13th of the playoffs and a 2-0 Kelowna lead.

Merkley added some insurance with his fifth of the post-season with 5:30 to play.

The five-foot-10, 187 pound forward had his best season with the Rockets scoring 20 goals and adding a whopping 70 assists for 90 points, good for sixth in league scoring and tops on the Rockets. Merkley will enter the NHL draft ranked 23rd in June and is expected to go in the first round.

Meanwhile Jackson Whistle stopped all 19 shots he faced for Kelowna, his fourth shutout of the 2015 playoffs.

Draisaitl, acquired from the Prince Albert Raiders in January, finished the post-season with 10 goals and 28 points, and was named the WHL playoff MVP.

Draisaitl, who played the first half of the season with the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers, has no regrets with his move to Kelowna.

“It’s unbelievable, as a hockey player you want win championships and I think once you’re there, it’s an amazing feeling,” Draisaitl said. “I’m extremely proud of every single guy on our team, we’ve worked so hard all year. I’m very proud.”

The Rockets’ fourth WHL championship win came under the guidance of a relatively young coaching staff, with first-year head man Dan Lambert at the helm and rookies Kris Mallette and Travis Crickard serving as assistants.

The last Rockets team to win the WHL title was the 2009 team coached by Trail’s Ryan Huska, with Kyle St. Denis of Trail and Castlegar’s Lucas and Evan Bloodoff in the line up.

For Lambert’s part, the first-year bench boss was thrilled his team could close out the WHL championship in front of the hometown faithful.

“Awesome, excited to do it in front of our home fans, I think that maybe that was the best thing,” said Lambert, who credited his team for rising to the occasion throughout the playoffs.

“Our team has come a long way from February when we hit a few bumps along the road,” Lambert said. “We weren’t sure if this was all going to come together, it took a little time but the key thing is that the players in the room believed, and that was the difference.”

The Rockets will be making their fifth appearance at the Memorial Cup, the first since 2009 when Huska’s team lost in the final. Kelowna’s first game will be May 22 against the host Quebec Remparts in Quebec City.

With files from the Kelowna Capital News.