VANCOUVER - Josh Morrissey has excelled on the international stage for Canada during his four-year Western Hockey League career, but until now he has never had the chance to play for a league title.
The Kelowna Rockets defenceman aims to make the most of it as his club faces the Wheat Kings in the final, starting Friday in Brandon, Man. This marks the first time since 2003 that the top two regular-season teams have reached the championship series.
"Knowing that this could very well be my last season in junior, I definitely want to end it off in the right way," said Morrissey, a Winnipeg Jets prospect who is expected to play in the AHL or NHL next season.
The 19-year-old Calgary native helped Canada win this year's world junior championship. He has also garnered gold medals at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament and IIHF under-18 worlds. After beginning the season with the struggling Prince Albert Raiders, he is savouring the rare chance for a world junior crown, a WHL championship and a Memorial Cup title in one season.
"Regardless of your age or time in the league or anything like that, it's so hard to win and so hard to get the chance to win," he said. "You might never have that opportunity (at any level) again. … For our team, I think we really want to relish it now."
The Rockets and Wheat Kings met only once in the regular season, with Kelowna winning at home in October, but they have waged a close battle on paper for months.
The Wheat Kings finished first overall with 114 points while the Rockets placed second with 112. The Rockets had a plus-122 goals differential while the Wheat Kings were plus-121. In the playoffs, both clubs sport identical 12-3 records, while Brandon has outscored Kelowna 65-64.
"It's been a long season where we were competing with them, especially in the second half, for home-ice (advantage) when it came to the final — and got there," said Brandon assistant coach David Anning.
Kelowna is seeking its fourth WHL title after winning on its previous final trips in 2003, 2005 and 2009.
"You don't realize (how special a finals berth is) until you're not there," said Kelowna owner and general manager Bruce Hamilton.
Brandon is chasing its third league crown in seven tries, having won in 1996 and 1979. The Wheat Kings lost to the Rockets in their last finals visit in 2005.
This series could ultimately be a test of key trades both teams made to reach the finals. After obtaining Morrissey, Rockets GM Hamilton acquired Edmonton Oilers prospect Leon Draisaitl in another deal with Prince Albert.
"We'd never traded a first-round (bantam draft) pick in 24 years, and we traded one," said Hamilton. "We decided that there comes a time when you've got to roll the dice when you get an opportunity to add a person like (Draisaitl) to the mix."
Draisaitl is the top active WHL playoff scorer with six goals and 15 assists in 15 games. Wheat Kings owner, GM and coach Kelly McCrimmon's moves included the acquisition of Calgary Flames prospect Morgan Klimchuk from Regina.
Centre John Quenneville leads Brandon in playoff scoring with 10 goals and nine assists in 15 contests. Since both teams are explosive offensively, they are stressing the need for tight defence.
"If you look at our group, we have the ability to have different guys step up and score a goal when we need it," said Anning. "So we're not concerned about scoring the goals."
Notes — Kelowna winger Tyrell Goulbourne (leg laceration) is out for the rest of the playoffs. High-scoring centre Rourke Chartier will miss at least the first two games with an undisclosed injury. … Anning said Brandon's injured players are day-to-day.