Kelowna Rockets ready for hockey season

Rockets ready for season

Optimism is always at its highest on the eve of a brand new season.

Veterans look to take the next step in their development, rookies want to prove they belong and the coaching staff believe they have assembled a team that can compete day in and day out.

It's true for the Kelowna Rockets who look to take a step forward after a disappointing 2022-2023 season in which they finished eighth in the Western Conference and were swept in four games by Seattle in the opening round of the playoffs.

They get a chance to flip the script Saturday when they host the Portland Winterhawks in the season opener at Prospera Place.

The adage is also true for a 16-year-old defenceman who will be thrown into the fray off the bat.

Jackson Gillespie, who resides in Keller, TX made the final roster after being selected in the first round (17th overall) in the 2022 U.S. draft.

"I can't wait. It's an incredible feeling and I'm so excited for it," said Gillespie following Friday's final full practice before the start of the season.

"I can't wait for tomorrow night for it to start. (My parents) will be here. I'm excited I get to share that moment with them."

Gillespie came to camp last year after being selected in the first round of the U.C. priority draft and, by all accounts could have made the team as a 15-year-old, but rules state 15-year-olds are only eligible to play six games unless they are granted exceptional status.

"My confidence was at an all time high," he said of his experience a year ago at camp. "I was just so grateful for it and it was a great experience for me."

Gillespie describes himself as a two-way defenceman but admits the defensive side of the game is where he excels.

"I'm really good defensively. I won't get as many points but I do have a good shot from the point.

"Then, just good, smart plays on the breakout, but my defence is my strong suit."

Gillespie almost slipped through the cracks during his draft year. Initially from Chicago, the family moved to the Dallas area so he could play with the Dallas Stars Elite Hockey club.

Because of the Chicago connection it was believed he was eligible for the OHL draft and not the WHL draft. His status was cleared up on the eve of the draft.

"We went out on a whim basically on (Vern Fiddler's) recommendation and Jackson came into camp last year and showed very well. Within our draft how it worked over the last couple of seasons with the Memorial Cup and the depleted picks that we had, we felt that Jackson did enough last season to warrant an agreement," said head coach Krtis Mallette.

"He came into camp with a clear mind of making this team and he did not disappoint. I thought he worked extremely hard, 16 years old, some rawness to his game but eagerness to learn. I think that age is just a number, he’s going to get his 40 plus games this year, and we’re excited for him to be in this environment and for what he’s going to be able to do."

With veteran Caden Price out week-to-week with a lower body injury and Jackson Desouza still in the Detroit Red Wings camp, Gillespie will get a chance to experience opening night in uniform.

"I'm so ready."

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