By GREGG DRINNAN Daily News Sports Editor
Matthew Needham is about to become the rarest of the rare in terms of WHL players -- a skater who has played 10 regular-season games despite not yet having turned 16 years of age.
Needham, 15, will play the ninth and 10th games of his WHL career this weekend with the Kamloops Blazers, whose forward ranks have been thinned by injuries.
The eighth overall selection in the 2010 bantam draft, Needham has 32 points in 29 games with the Okanagan Hockey Academy midget team in his hometown of Penticton.
He also six points, two of them goals, in eight games with the Blazers, who are at home to the Chilliwack Bruins tonight and the Vancouver Giants on Saturday night. The Blazers have recalled him for the fourth time this season and he is expected to play in both games.
WHL rules limit a 15-year-old player to five games before his club team has its season come to an end. However, there are exceptions.
For one thing, WHL games played by a 15-year-old during the World Junior Championship and the U-17 World Hockey Challenge don’t count if the WHL team has more than two players in those competitions. Needham played six games with the Blazers while they had four players in Buffalo and Winnipeg.
As well, the WHL may grant an exemption should a team find itself in an emergency situation, which is about where the Blazers find themselves as they will be without four and perhaps five forwards tonight.
When centre Dalibor Bortnak went down with a concussion in the third period of Wednesday’s 5-0 loss to the Tri-City Americans in Kennewick, Wash., the Blazers were left with eight forwards.
Bortnak won’t play this weekend, nor will Jordan DePape, Thomas Frazee or Chase Schaber, all of whom are sidelined with leg-related injuries. Bernhard Keil (shoulder) will be a game-time decision.
The Blazers (21-25-2) go into the weekend in eighth place in the 10-team Western Conference. They are one point ahead of the Bruins (20-20-3), who hold five games in hand.
The Bruins list forwards Brendan Persley (foot) and Jesse Pauls (leg) as out, while swingman Curt Gogol (shoulder) and winger Robin Soudek (knee) are day-to-day.
The Giants (22-19-5) are showing signs of finding their stride after an inconsistent first half. They are 6-4-0 in their last 10 and back atop the B.C. Division, one point ahead of the Kelowna Rockets and five up on Kamloops.
The Blazers returned from the Christmas break to sweep a home-and-home series from the Giants, winning 4-1 there and 6-1 here. Since then, the Blazers are 4-7-0, while the Giants are 5-3-0.
The Giants also have added centre Andrej Stastny to their roster. A 6-foot-4, 215-pounder, he was a teammate of Bortnak’s on the Slovakian team at the World Junior Championship and gives Vancouver head coach Don Hay the big centre he covets.
Richard Doerksen, the WHL’s vice-president, hockey, has rescinded the spearing major and game misconduct given to Kamloops D Josh Caron by referee Jason Nissen on Wednesday night. Instead, Caron was given a minor penalty, so won’t be suspended.
However, Doerksen didn’t rescind the slashing major and game misconduct handed to Blazers F Ryan Hanes as the third period ran out in Saturday’s 5-2 loss to the visiting Portland Winterhawks.
Doerksen also chose not to suspend Hanes, who hacked at Portland G Mac Carruth. That was Hanes’ first game misconduct of the season; a third game misconduct carries an automatic one-game suspension so long as it didn’t warrant an earlier suspension.
JUST NOTES: Both games start at 7 p.m., at Interior Savings Centre. . . . The Blazers are 4-6-0 in their last 10 outings, but have lost five of six, including three of four at home. . . . The Bruins also are 4-6-0 in their last 10. . . . The Blazers are billing Saturday’s game as Mascot Night and expect as many as 20 mascots to be on hand. . . . Vancouver F James Henry (knee) still is about a month from returning. He was injured in a 4-1 loss to the visiting Blazers on Dec. 27. . . . Vancouver F Spencer Bennett has 14 points, including nine goals, over his last nine games. He and linemates Brendan Gallagher and Brendan Rowinski have combined for 37 points over those nine games, in which the Giants are 6-3-0.
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