Vernon Vipers
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Vernon Vipers’ Colton Cyr (left) and Salmon Arm Silverbacks’ Alex Gillies keep their eyes on the puck in B.C. Hockey League action Friday night at Wesbild Centre. Cyr scored the OT winner to give Vernon a 4-3 win.
José Larochelle/Morning Star

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Vernon Vipers ice Salmon Arm SilverBacks in home finale

It has been a while since the Vernon Vipers played a B.C. Hockey League game that didn’t mean something.

At worst, there was always a meager two points in the standings to be had. At best, it was a Royal Bank Cup national championship game, or a season-deciding Game 7 of some important playoff series.

But with Vernon’s playoff hopes already snuffed out, none of it really mattered in their final regular-season home game Friday night at Wesbild Centre. Instead, the Vipers (or at least some of them) found something to play for – their fans.

Colton Cyr, one of six graduating Viper veterans, sent nearly 2,300 fans home with a smile as he collected the overtime winner with a shot from in close to give the Snakes a 4-3 win over the Salmon Arm SilverBacks at Wesbild Centre.

“We owe it to the fans. At the end of the day, they make everything happen,” said Cyr, brought over from the Nanaimo Clippers at the trade deadline. “And obviously Duncan (Wray, owner) treats us very well. In any hockey game, you can always find something to play for, and definitely the fans and our owner are two supportive reasons.

“It’s been nice coming to Vernon. As my last game as a junior hockey player, it was nice to get that last goal.”

Vernon swarmed the 'Backs for much of the first period, unleashing on netminder Kurt Williams from all angles. John Knisley and Pat McGillis narrowly missed on long one-timer passes, Brendan  Persley and Ben Gamache were stymied point-blank by Williams, and Cyr rang a slapper off the Salmon Arm tender’s mask from the top of the faceoff dot.

The Vipers (29-27-1-2) were rewarded with 20 seconds left in the frame when Adam Tambellini (26th goal) put one by Williams (30 saves) after a barrage of shots by linemates Persley and Hadley.

“We started the game real well, and to be honest, we could have had a couple goals early,” said Vipers’ head coach Jason Williamson. “They got some Grade A chances, but they didn’t bear down.

Williamson noted a clear distinction between his players that were going hard, and others that were just going through the motions.

“Some guys were great. You can single a guy out like Aaron Hadley, and yeah, he was great. And it shows on the scoresheet – he gets two assists and made some big-time plays. And good for Colton Cyr to get the game-winner, because he plays the game the right way most of the time too.”

After a scoreless second period, the SilverBacks surprised the Vipers with a pair of powerplay goals, one courtesy of second star Myles McAuley (13th), the other by Travis Stephens (15th), who hoisted a puck behind goalie Danny Todosychuk (25 saves) at the side of the net.

Vernon equalized midway through the period on a patient pass from Hadley in the corner, spotting Marc Hetnik cruising in from the point. The ever-improving Brookline, Mass. product picked the top corner through a maze of bodies for this third tally of the season.

Mike Zalewski (37th), knocking down a shot by John Knisley and tucking the puck behind Williams, looked to have things sewn up with just over a minute to play, but McAuley (14th) forced OT with Salmon Arm's third man-advantage goal with 21 second remaining in regulation.

The 2011-12 campaign was pretty  much a write-off for the young Salmon Arm squad, who lost a lot of talent through trades, both in the offseason and throughout the year. Making matters worse, it seems like every player they dealt had a breakout season with their new teams. Paul De Jersey (Prince George Spruce Kings) is tied for the scoring lead with 94 points, and Devin Gannon (Cowichan Valley Capital, 74 points) and Bryce Gervais (Penticton Vees, 73 points) are in the top 15.

“We made the decision in December to go young and build for the future,” said rookie BCHL head coach Colin O’Hara. “We took our lumps, but we felt the opportunity we could give our young guys to play in key situations is going to pay off for us next year. We felt that setting the table for next year was more of a reality than making a playoff push.”

Regarding Friday night’s outcome, O’Hara added: “That’s the ninth or 10th overtime loss this year, and that’s a huge amount of games and points when you look at it.

“But we continue to make good on our opportunities, and that’s three of our last four games where we’ve really felt we played well and have been on the wrong end.”

One of the main beneficiaries of the Salmon Arm youth movement has been rookie forward Alex Gillies, a Vernon product who was carded as the team’s mandatory 16-year-old. Heading into their final regular-season game of the season against Vernon Saturday night in Salmon Arm, Gillies had racked up 10 goals and eight assists for 18 points in 49 games. He also collected the team’s Top Rookie and Most Improved Player awards.

Said O’Hara: “He scored double-digit goals for us as a 16-year-old, and at this level, to do that, it’s pretty rare. He started the year on the fourth line and lately he’s been playing top-six minutes.”

The 5-foot-11, 180-pounder played Quad Midget with the Okanagan Rockets last season and is thriving on the competition.

“I had to learn to adapt at the start of the year,” said Gillies, whose brother Chris was the top scoring d-man with the KIJHL North Okanagan Knights this season. “Everybody’s a bit bigger, but I think I’ve adapted to it, and the speed. I had to put on weight and keep my feet moving.”

While the loss of players like Gervais and captain Brett Knowles, who was traded to Cowichan in early January, initially rocked the remaining SilverBacks, Gillies says they have learned through adversity and will be a stronger team next year for having gone through it.

“At the end of it, we’re all happy to play together,” he said. “We’ve got a good group of guys and we started to play pretty well lately and keeping games a lot closer. I think if we had more time with this group we would have gotten a bit further.

“I think we’re going to have a top-end team next year.”

SNAKE BITES: Before Friday’s game, Colton Sparrow was awarded the Wayne Buck Memorial Award, given to the player who exemplifies work ethic and unselfish play...Forwards Ben Gamache, McGillis, Darren Nowick, defenceman Sean Robertson and netminder Kirby Halcrow join Cyr as graduating players. Zalewski (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute), Knisley (Cornell University), Luke Juha (Penn State) are expected to head to college next season...McAuley, James Friedel and Williams are the graduating SilverBacks.

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