After a nine-day holiday break, the Kamloops Blazers didn't sit around and trade Christmas stories Thursday.
No, they went right back to work.
The Blazers players returned to Kamloops on Thursday and practised at Interior Savings Centre last night. There's no time for rest - they return to game action tonight against the host Kelowna Rockets (28-3-2), winners of 12 straight and owners of the best record in the WHL.
The Blazers finished the pre-Christmas portion of their schedule by going 3-3 on a road trip to Saskatchewan and Manitoba, a relatively successful trip considering the struggles of the team leading into it.
"This group has to come back with the focus of doing things the right way all the time," Blazers head coach Dave Hunchak said Thursday. "On our trip, we did some good things at times . . . but there has to be more consistency and we have to be better in all areas."
Kamloops also will be home to the Vancouver Giants on Sunday, 6 p.m., at Interior Savings Centre.
The Blazers are 9-23-4 and last in the Western Conference. They are 11 points back of the Prince George Cougars (14-18-5) and 15 back of the Tri-City Americans (17-16-3), who hold the last playoff spot.
With exactly half the regular-season schedule still ahead of them and a playoff spot miles away, the Blazers aren't looking at next season just yet.
"You never do," Hunchak said. "This group understands that until someone tells you you're not in, don't stop. In this game, there's no finish line . . . and there's a lot at stake for everybody.
"It's important for us as a team to build on certain things and build in a positive way. Nothing is insurmountable."
The Blazers are in rebuilding mode, and the first half showed the worst of the growing pains involved in that. Kamloops has been inconsistent at best, and suffered through the longest losing streak in franchise history (13 games) from Nov. 6 to Dec. 10.
Hunchak hasn't been shy to play everyone in all types of situations, and that won't change in the second half.
"There are tremendous opportunities for all people," he said. "Everybody has to be prepared to play every day."
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The Blazers are still banged up, even after a few days off.
Hunchak said Thursday that captain Matt Needham is healthy after injuring a leg before the break. Needham left in the first period of the Blazers' last game, a 6-3 loss to the host Swift Current Broncos on Dec. 17.
Goaltender Bolton Pouliot, who has missed more than a month with an injured hand, still isn't able to take shots so won't be able to play this week.
Forward Joe Kornelsen, who has sat out seven games with a head injury, is day-to-day.
Forward Chase Souto, who missed the Swift Current game with an "upper-body" injury sustained in a 5-2 loss to the Warriors in Moose Jaw on Dec. 15, was to be re-evaluated last night.
There was still no news on defenceman Jordan Thomson (personal), who remains home in Manitoba.
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Nick Chyzowski, meanwhile, will miss at least five games while away at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge in Cape Breton, N.S.
Chyzowski is one of two 16-year-old Kamloops natives on Team Pacific - Everett Silvertips defenceman Kevin Davis is the other. Team Pacific is scheduled to open the tournament Sunday against Quebec in North Sydney. Pacific also will play Team West on Monday, Czech Republic on Wednesday and Sweden on Jan. 2. The tournament is scheduled to wrap up Jan. 4.
Chyzowski is the only Blazers player away due to an international commitment.