RBC champs head Interior poll

The Vernon Vipers will need solid leadership from veterans like Bryce Kakoske (left) and Stevie Weinstein if they hope to defend their B.C. Hockey League crown this season.

Black Press Sports

They don’t rebuild, they reload. And while the Vernon Vipers are a younger and less experienced bunch than last year, don’t count them out from winning a record third straight Royal Bank Cup championship.

Of course, there are 141 other teams in the Canadian Junior A Hockey League also chasing a national title as league play opens tonight in 10 leagues. One has to assume the Waywayseecappo Wolverines of Manitoba and the Toronto Dixie Beehives are among the many teams tired of watching the Vipers hoist the RBC in mid-May.

Black Press writers have assembled the annual B.C. Hockey League Interior Conference preview, in this, the 50th anniversary of the circuit. The Williams Lake Timberwolves are gone and there are new coaches in Salmon Arm and Quesnel.

Here’s how the order of finish should look like come Feb. 20:

1. VERNON VIPERS

KEY RETURNEES: F Dylan Walchuk (19-28-47), Bryce Kakoske (13-28-41), Dave Robinson (15-10-25), D Adam Thompson (5-20-25), D Stevie Weinstein (4-18-22), G Blake Voth (1.79 GAA, 92.90 save percentage).

ROOKIE SENSATIONS: Power forward Aaron Hadley scored at a point-a-game clip, and added 94 penalty minutes, as a 16-year-old with the KIJHL Beaver Valley Nitehawks. F Trevor Fitzgerald surpassed all expectations last season, leading the expansion North Okanagan Knights with 67 points in 49 games. The Vernon product also practised with the Snakes and played in the Royal Bank Cup championships. F Marcus Basara (37-28-65) led the Notre Dame Hounds to their second straight Telus Cup title.

STRENGTHS: With seven returnees from their RBC Cup national championship squad, the Snakes have a leadership core that knows what it takes to win. Combine that with some of the best prospects to be found in North America, and the expert tutelage of coaches Mark Ferner and Jason Williamson, and Vernon will once again be a contender.

COACH’S QUOTE: Ferner: “We made the commitment that we would be young this year. We want to groom these guys the way we want them to be groomed. Our older guys need to show the way and our younger guys need to bring that enthusiasm.”

2. PENTICTON VEES

KEY RETURNEES: F Joey Holka (28-23-51), F Logan Johnston (14-17-31), D Joey Laleggia (13-52-65), F Garrett Milan (30-30-60), F Stefan Nicholishen (2-5-7), D Derik Johnson (1-13-14), G Joel Rumpel (19-3-0, two shutouts, .920 save percentage).

ROOKIE SENSATIONS: As a junior with St. Francis in 2009, Joey Benik set a Minnesota state high school record with 63 goals (previously 62). Including the playoffs, he scored 65 goals and 102 points that season. F James Polk scored 27 goals and 48 points in 55 prep games with Shattuck-St.Mary’s high school last season. Polk’s teammate, F Bradley Robbins scored 21 goals and 54 points in 55 games. D Troy Stecher, can handle the puck and tallied four goals and 31 points with the Greater Vancouver Canadians in the B.C. Major Midget League last season.

STRENGTHS: There is a focus on building an identity during the month of September. As that happens, coach/GM Fred Harbinson expects the Vees to be a hard-working club that will be difficult to play against.

COACH’S QUOTE: Harbinson: “We want to be skilled but still be blue-collar. No one can hang the tag on us of being just a freewheeling team.”

3. TRAIL SMOKE EATERS

KEY RETURNEES: F Scott Jacklin (24-45-69), F Travis St. Denis (20-26-46) F Sam Mellor (28-35-63), F Paul Mailey (10-23-33) D Steve Koshey (7-29-36) D Eric Walker (4-7-11) G Kiefer Smiley (12-21 4.18 GAA).

ROOKIE SENSATIONS: F Joey Baker was a force with the Junior B Beaver Valley Nitehawks early last season as a 16-year-old before illness limited his playing time. “He’s come to camp in tremendous shape and skating very well. I’m super happy with him,” said Trail coach Jim Ingram. F Keanan Patershuk performed well as a 16-year-old during his brief stints with Trail as an affiliate player from the KIJHL’s Fernie Ghostriders last year. The Kelowna native has impressed the Smokies staff with his tenacious work ethic in camp. “He’s hard to play against, a big thick kid that hits hard,” said Ingram.

STRENGTHS: The Smokies are going with a veteran lineup this year including a corps of blueliners who have had a couple of BCHL seasons together as a unit. Ingram added to the team’s overall speed, scoring and experience with key off-season 20-year-old additions Logan Proulx, a Trail native who played three seasons with the WHL’s Edmonton Oil Kings, Cullen Bradshaw, the leading scorer from the AJHL’s Brooks Bandits, and Brett Slobodzian, who led the AJHL’s Lloydminster Bobcats in scoring.

COACH’S QUOTE: Ingram: “We are expecting big things. I think we’re in a different situation this year with our veterans and we can expect more because we can draw from experience. However, you can have something that looks very good on paper but it’s what goes on in the room and how much they care for each other that counts for a lot.”

4. WESTSIDE WARRIORS

KEY RETURNEES: F Alex Grieve (26-24-50), F Kyle Singleton (25-19-44), F Grayson Downing (18-18), D Peter McIntosh (0-4-4) and G Cam Gorchynski (4-4, 2.90 GAA).

ROOKIE SENSATIONS: Brayden Sherbinin and Michael King are a pair of 17-year-old defencemen who coach Darren Yopyk expects to make an immediate impact on the Warriors’ blue line.

Sherbinin, a Kelowna native who played last season with the Nelson Leafs, is a dynamic skater who has an offensive bent to his game. The 6-foot-5 King, who played Major Midget in Prince George, brings both size and a cerebral approach to the position. Up front, Travis Blanleil, 16, Brett McKinnon, 18, and Shawn Hochhausen, 18, will supply rookie depth. In goal, Kevin Boyle joins the Warriors from Junior A in New Jersey.

STRENGTHS: With the acquisitions of Junior A veterans Tom Kroshus (Camrose Kodiaks) and Matt Cronin (Drumheller Dragons), and rookies Sherbinin and King, Westside’s defensive corps could be among the best in the league. At forward, the Warriors lost their top two scorers in Trevor Bailey and Cam Reid, but should have three solid lines to provide ample offence. The most dangerous unit should feature newly-anointed captain Grieve, Singleton and Quinn Gould, all 20-year-olds.

COACH’S QUOTE: Yopyk: “Our defensive corps is exceptional, and we look like we have pretty good depth up front. We’re going to have to be a physical group that works extremely hard to be successful. I think we’ll be able to move the puck well and we’ll combine that with some pretty good team speed. Now that I’ve had a full season in the league, I’ll have a better idea of what to expect.”

5. SALMON ARM SILVERBACKS

KEY RETURNEES: F Dave Killip (32-42-74), F Matt Cassidy (10-10-20), D Charlie Vasaturo (7-19-26), D Jayson Reardon (1-9-10), F Brett Knowles (6-10-16).

ROOKIE SENSATIONS: The SilverBacks plucked the top three scorers from the Prince Albert Mintos Midget AAA program – Taylor Fauchoux, Bryce Gervais and Cody Michelle. The trio combined for 193 points in 129 games. F Morgan Zulinick led the Thompson Blazers (Major Midget) in scoring with a point-per-game production. He is already committed to the NCAA Wisconsin Badgers.

STRENGTHS: The ‘Backs have retained most of their 14 eligible returning players, and until Mark Zengerle’s heir apparent reveals himself on the scoreboard, Salmon Arm can rely on a rock-solid top-four defensive corps, which includes the return of WHL veteran Clinton Atkinson (Moose Jaw Warriors). Picked up in the offseason from the Camrose Kodiaks, Kris Moore is primed to take over starting netminder duties.

COACH’S QUOTE: head coach Tim Kehler: “We’re going to be a team that’s hard to play against, that can beat you with three or four lines with our scoring ability. Defensively, we’re going to be big and mean. We certainly want to be amongst the elite teams in the Interior and I think we can get there.”

6. QUESNEL MILLIONAIRES

KEY RETURNEES: F Justin Hogan (15-29-44), F Tyler French (15-17-32), D Skyler Smutek (7-27-34), D Sam Higgins (7-28-35), D Anderson White (0-3-3).

ROOKIE SENSATIONS: F Chris Albee had eight goals and 20 points in 28 games as captain of the Major Midget Cariboo Cougars, Malcolm Gould had 24 goals and 42 points in 37 games for the Squamish Wolfpack of the Pacific Coast Junior Hockey League. The biggest surprise for the coaches has been the play of Quin Buckellew an 18-year-old from Moorhead, Minn., who invited himself to camp and has played a solid all-round game.

STRENGTHS: Young forwards with huge upside potential, along with several key acquisitions during the off season, including forwards Rigby Burgart who was with the Calgary Hitmen of the WHL last season, and Sterling Bear who collected 15 goals and 38 points in 37 games last year with the Miramachi Timberwolves in the MJAHL. Both are expected to provide the Mills with some grit up front, and Bear has great touch around the net. The acquisition of G Charlie Corsi from Dartmouth (ECAC), along with Kirby Halcrow, should give the Mills the best goaltending tandem in the league. The Mills have improved on both sides of the puck and have experience to boot.

COACH’S QUOTE: Millionaires’ assistant coach Brian Kozak. “We’re better off than last year right through the lineup. The vets are carrying last year’s experience over to this year. It will come down to pride in wearing the crest and commitment to win as a team.”

7. PRINCE GEORGE SPRUCE KINGS

KEY RETURNEES: D Justin Fillion (6-40-46), F Nick DeSousa, F RJay Berra (16-20-36) and F Jeff Earnest (12-14-26).

ROOKIE SENSATIONS: F Chris Bodo joins the Spruce Kings from the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League’s Strathroy Rockets, and he’s already secured a NCAA Division 1 scholarship to Mercyhurst College for the 2011-12 campaign. Playing on the right side, Bodo was the Rockets’ regular-season and playoff scoring champion last season (49-48-97 in 50 games). Also joining the Spruce Kings for a year with an NCAA Division 1 commitment is G Ryan Benitez, who’s heading to Princeton University in 2011. Benitez suited up for the New York Apple Core Junior Program in 2009-10. The team is also hoping a couple of forwards from the KIJHL’s Grizzlies, Riley Spraggs (Vernon) and Faiz Khan (California), can provide similar offensive production in the BCHL as they did at the junior B level in helping Revelstoke win the Western Canadian title.

STRENGTHS: Bodo has already showed, albeit during exhibition action, how explosive he can be offensively. He scored a hat trick in the team’s final pre-season game, a 4-2 triumph over the North American Hockey League’s Dawson Creek Rage. With more experience from Berra, DeSousa and Earnest, and more forward depth in the mix, the Spruce Kings have the tools to score more frequently this season. The team’s staff is confident Benitez gives them the stability in goal.

COACH’S QUOTE: Mike Hawes (assistant GM/director of player personnel): “What I like about our team right now is the depth we have up front, I think that’s going to be an integral part of our team this year is the amount of forwards that we have up front that have some outstanding offensive ability and they’re going to be able to carry us a long way this season.

8. MERRITT CENTENNIALS

KEY RETURNEES: F Dustin Johnson (35-32-67), F Jeff Jones (27-25-52), D Steve Tresierra (7-20-27), D Jeff Zmurchyk (5-16-21). In total, the Cents should have nine returning players from a 2009-10 squad that showed flashes of brilliance last season.

ROOKIE SENSATIONS: Seventeen-year-old Jakob Reichert (6-foot-3, 230 pounds) from the KIJHL-champion Revelstoke Grizzlies heads up a stellar group of first-year players. The likes of Max Vallis from Santa Clara, Calif., Evan Stack (Princeton Posse KIJHL), and Regan Soquila (North East Chiefs Major Midget) have a ton of speed up front and a knack for finding the net, while Brandon Pfeil (Grandview Steelers PCJHL) and 16-year-old sensation Reese Wilcox (Surrey) look right at home on the blueline.

STRENGTHS: Head Coach and GM Luke Pierce begins his first full season behind the bench. Joining him will be former five-year BCHL defenceman Chad DeLeeuw. In Johnson and Jones, the Cents have their top two scorers from last season returning, along with all-star d-man and newly-appointed captain Tresierra, and workhorse Zmurchyk. Off-season acquisition Jared Anderson (’90) from the Grande Prairie Storm of the AJHL gives them veteran experience in net.

COACH’S QUOTE: Pierce: “I’m really happy with our age mix. We have a good youthful group, but with some veteran composure. I like our defence, our size, and our speed. We also have a number of players who are prepared to play certain roles on the team, and that is important.”

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