Produced by the WHL in partnership with BC Tree Fruits, “Growing the Game’s Best Talent” is a multi-part series highlighting the next generation of WHL stars set to embark on a journey pursuing NHL dreams. “Growing the Game’s Best Talent” can be seen monthly at WHL.ca, featuring a key member of the upcoming 2018 NHL Draft Class. Together, the WHL and BC Tree Fruits are “Growing the Game’s Best Talent.”
When it comes to team and individual success in the Western Hockey League, there may be no better team that balances the pair than the Kelowna Rockets.
With seven division titles, four Ed Chynoweth Cups and one Mastercard Memorial Cup a part of the team’s history, so to is the annual tradition when the team sees one or multiple members of their team selected at the NHL Draft in June.
For the past 11 seasons, the Rockets have had at least one player selected in the draft. In the past three seasons, a Rocket has been selected in the first round. It’s a tradition that has now become the responsibility of Rockets forward Kyle Topping to carry on this season, the highest of two players on the team listed by NHL Central Scouting.
“It was the goal going into the season,” Topping said of wanting to hear his name called in June. “I wanted to have a good summer and then come into the start of the season ready to play and prove that I’m supposed to be on those lists.
“It’s nice honour, but I still have a lot of work to do.”
Though Topping’s skill set is common knowledge to Rockets’ fans and those throughout the Rockets’ organization, it’s interesting that he’s been able to develop his game despite not growing up within driving distance of his childhood home – unless a ferry was the mode of transportation. Growing up in Salt Spring Island, B.C., Kyle and his older brother Jordan, who plays for the Tri-City Americans, grew up with the closest ice surface on Vancouver Island.
Hockey was a short ferry ride away, meaning the younger Topping would play with the Cowichan Valley Capitals Bantam Tier 1 Program for a season before heading north to be a member of the North Island Silvertips and continuing on his path to eventually reach the Western Hockey League.
“They’re starting to get more kids who off-island to Cowichan Valley and play, which is nice to see, but it’s definitely not a hockey community,” said Topping.
Still, the experience of minor hockey was one Topping utilized to develop a passion for the game and a becoming a rising star in the WHL.
“I just tried to have as much fun as I could with it,” said Topping. “Around probably Pee Wee or Bantam, I definitely realized I could have a good junior career and try and make a living doing this.
“It’s definitely something I’ve just had fun doing coming to the rink everyday and trying to get better.”
Kyle and Jordan remain the two biggest names in hockey to come from the island in recent years. Both broke out for career years with the younger of the two tallying 65 points (22G-43A) in 66 games this season, with more expected in the playoffs.
“He’s put in some quality work in the summer,” said Rockets’ head coach Jason Smith. “[Kyle’s] really grown his game. He started the year off with more confidence and getting some opportunity.
“He accepted the challenge of being a player that was going to be relied upon and leaned on. He’s just got better and better.”
It makes sense that Kyle and his brother would do everything together, starting with the career-best offensive production this season. That sibling rivalry will take on an other element starting Thursday, March 22 (7: 05 p.m. PT) though when the Rockets and Americans begin their first round series in the 2018 WHL Playoffs.
“Just growing up with him I watched him and tried to be like him as much as I could,” said the younger Topping. “[With him] being two years older, I followed in his footsteps with his hockey career and just doing stuff like shooting pucks and all that kind of stuff.
“I think we both benefited growing up together.”
This year has been Kyle’s crusade towards moving up the list of draft-eligible talent, an experience his head coach went through back in 1992 as he transitioned from the Regina Pats into a NHL career that would span over 1,000 games.
With an offensively-talented youngster coming out of the Rockets’ organization once again, Smith wanted his rising star to keep taking advantage of the development experience offered to Rockets players by the team’s front office and other hockey staff. He also wanted Kyle to continue working at the same level that earned him a spot on the Central Scouting list to begin with with getting too high or too low.
“The culture that is bred in the organization from the top down, Bruce [Hamilton] and Lorne [Frey] have lots of experience and knowledge of what it takes to help develop young players,” Smith noted. “A player still has to go out and play, but if you can give them the tools and the information to help them along that way, you’re going to give them the best opportunity.”
The regular season success has been well earned by Topping and he’s accomplished his goal as an individual by moving up the charts in regards to the NHL Draft conversation. Now, it’s the team goal that front and center: winning another Ed Chynoweth Cup to add to the team’s storied legacy.
Topping tallied a single assist in 15 games during last year’s playoff run, but that just made him hungrier for more. With increased opportunity and a chance to directly aid the Rockets’ playoff fortunes this season in a scoring role, he’s ready to take that next step forward.
“Last year I didn’t have that big of a role, but I got a taste of what [WHL] playoff hockey is like and how fun it is,” added Topping. “Once you experience it, you want to get back there so much.”