AT RANDOM: Alberta bound

I have spent most of the last four weeks on assignment in Alberta, first covering the Vernon Vipers at the Doyle Cup in Spruce Grove, and again for their Royal Bank Cup run just down the road in Camrose.

After that, I took a much-needed holiday to celebrate my cousin’s wedding in Calgary, and then ventured southeast to Medicine Hat to visit an old high school friend.

Here are some of my lasting impressions from Wild Rose Country.

First off, if someone had told me last September that the Vipes would still be playing hockey in May, I likely would have snickered or, as they say in text speak, “LMAO.” For a team with just eight returning players to make it back to the RBC is remarkable, and a testament to coaches Mark Ferner and Jason Williamson, and to the veteran players for keeping the Viper culture intact.

You could tell early in the season some of the newcomers were struggling to make the adjustment to life in the B.C. Hockey League, and it showed in their fourth-place standing at the season’s midway point in early December. But after the Christmas break, things started to click and soon some of those hesitant-looking rookies were starting to earn game stars on a regular basis.

There is no denying the Vipers are blessed with one of the largest recruiting programs in junior A hockey, and have used that budget to extend their scouting pipeline across North America. But just like every other team, their 23 players, talented as they are, still have to battle through the 60-game regular-season grind, plus four gruelling best-of-seven series, just to earn a shot at a national title.

That the Vipers didn’t win an unprecedented third-straight national title will be a letdown to some, but if you step back and look at the big picture, two out of three ain’t that bad, especially when many didn’t pick them to make it to the league final.

As far as junior hockey goes, Vernon fans (and media) have it pretty cushy. They have an owner who isn’t afraid to spend money to bring in top talent, yet he doesn’t meddle in the hockey operations. Ferner and Williamson are one of the best coaching tandems in the 137-team CJHL, and it never seems to take players long to fully understand what it means to put on a Viper jersey.

As for the rest of my Alberta journey, by the time I returned home, I had racked up more than 3,000 highway kilometres and two speeding tickets, which I have already been informed I can’t claim when I submit my expenses.

My cousin’s wedding was an absolute blast, and as one relative pointed out, probably because it was the first time in more than a decade that the Corbett clan has gathered for something other than a funeral. My Auntie Marge’s Scottish relatives only fueled the atmosphere with their fiery, party-going ways.

In Medicine Hat, I met the largest cat I have ever encountered, at least outside of a zoo. His name is King (of course) and he is my friend Jace’s 25-pound, tuxedo-coloured behemoth. Duke, King’s aptly named cohort, looks like a kitten next to him, yet he is a fully grown. I’m just glad I met King’s approval because apparently he isn’t afraid to let you know it if you are not welcome into his inner circle of friends.

Aside from catching up with one of my best friends and meeting his two beautiful boys, four-year-old Elijah and baby Caleb, for the first time, I also had a chance to go back in time with a visit to Medicine Hat’s historic clay district.

In the early 1900s, Medicine Hat was home to a burgeoning ceramic industry, including Medalta Potteries and Hycroft China, both of which are undergoing massive restoration efforts.

Despite being mid-project, I got a sneak peek at what will undoubtedly become a beautiful, interactive museum dedicated to the preservation of the area’s industrial past. If you are ever out that way, I suggest you add it to your itinerary.

Graeme Corbett is a sports reporter with The Morning Star.



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