Willy searching for Cup chemistry
So you wanna play for the Vernon Vipers in the 2013-14 B.C. Hockey League season? Get in line kid. The list is long and getting longer.
Head coach/GM Jason Williamson can welcome back all but three players from a season where Vernon finished 13th overall in a 16-team circuit. They were dead-last on the powerplay. They were dead-last in goals scored.
He will put the “best 22 on the ice” as the Vipers go about building a dream team for the 2014 Royal Bank Cup, May 10-18, at Wesbild Centre.
The Snakes are rock-solid in net with Austin Smith and Danny Todoyschuk. However, should a net detective with proven creditionals call the Viper Den looking for a place to play, he will be given a fair look.
Once the Surrey Eagles are done in the playoffs, the Vipers will officially announce the four players they have coming this way to complete those major deals which sent Adam Tambellini to the Eagles and Aaron Hadley to Nanaimo Clippers.
They won’t be fourth-line forwards or depth d-men. They will be impact players.
Williamson’s problem is a good one. He will soon have too many players. Some will have to be traded, including a few veterans who underachieved in a 21-win season.
“Our goal is to win the BCHL, to front-door this thing,” said Williamson, over lunch at Earls this week. “In our exit meetings, there was a lot of anxiety with some players. I think they learned how to win down the stretch. At the beginning, we were losing a lot of one-goal games. We would panic and lose. We told the guys, ‘If you’re not here for the right reasons, you’re gone.’ Every player in North America wants to be here. Don’t let them take your jobs.”
In the final year of a three-year contract, Williamson earned an education degree from Niagara University in New York, where he played hockey on a scholarship. He has never taught a day since, choosing hockey over math and phys-ed classes.
“It was a tough year because I wanted to win as bad as anybody. Did I enjoy going to the rink everyday? Yes. Did I enjoy being around the coaches and players? Yes. I expressed to (owner Wray) Duncan that I wanted to be here. This is home. Vernon is very passionate about its team; it’s like Little Montreal.
“When things were going south, Duncan told me, ‘I believe in you, I believe in this team.’ Duncan is a guy who comes in the dressingroom and on the bus. He sees what we’re doing. He’s always been in my corner. We had a good meeting at the end of the season and he’s still really entrenched in this team.”
Williamson, 32, knows he has to upgrade in most areas. The quartet headed here from Surrey and Nanaimo will address much of the team’s weaknesses.
Prospects are aplenty. From the skate-till-they-drop Junior B Knights in Armstrong there are power forwards Morgan Johnston and Colton Thibault and skilled forwards Matty Saharchuk, Mat Lambert and 15-year-old Blaine Caton. Rugged d-man Mac Ferner will also get a look.
Also from the Junior B ranks are big scoring wingers Dallas Calvin and Kurt Black in Beaver Valley. Both players had strong cups of mocha with the Vipers this season.
Toss in tough, offensive d-man Alex Gran from the Okanagan Major Midget Rockets and the competition for spots will be fierce come Aug. 19 training camp.
Williamson has contacts in the Boston area, where the Vipers once plucked Mike Collins and Garrett Noonan. He has also amped up his scouting in Ontario and is heading to the USA Midget Nationals, April 3-7, in Pittsburgh on his own.
“I’m looking for kids in Ontario and Saskatchewan and we’ll take the best of the best. Penticton has done a good job recruiting in Ontario and we gotta do a good job there too.”
Williamson and assistants Dave Robinson and Jason Read had high expectations for this season. They quickly learned after a bunch of one-goal losses, they had a very fragile group.
“We changed the culture and we ended the season on a high (winning four straight against top teams) so we have a good sense of where we are going into one of the most exciting seasons ever in Vernon.”
While only 32, Williamson has heard and seen all the whispers, rumours and Network 54 comments calling for his head. He’s got thick skin and realizes there are holes in his game. He strives for excellence and watches NHL games every night looking for a way to better his coaching.
He wants to prepare his players better. Get them to pay attention to detail more. Get them to compete harder.
Besides Wray and anybody who really knows the man, Williamson finds unconditional support from his wife Kristin. The couple had their first child, Maddex, on Saturday, Jan. 26, a day off for the Vipers.
“You can’t not take the job home. I get phone calls every night and I’m making calls asking guys for advice on things all the time. She’s very supportive. She understands.”