Honestly, Duncan Wray didn’t want to go to Vernon City Hall Tuesday morning.
The owner of the Vernon Vipers felt uncomfortable about going to a ceremony honouring what he thought was his team’s second-place performance at the Royal Bank Cup in Camrose, Alta. After all, under his guidance, Vipers teams had never lost an RBC Cup final, going a perfect 4-0 in championship games.
But when Vipers players insisted he join them, Wray acquiesced. It was being part of the team.
Good thing, because Tuesday’s ceremony was for Wray.
In front of Vernon council, city staff, friends, supporters and with his longtime wife, Libby, by his side, Wray was awarded the Freedom of the City award, the highest honour given to a resident of Vernon.
“Duncan’s leadership of the Vipers franchise, and its standing in the league, has had a tremendous positive impact for the city, basically putting Vernon on the map across Canada’s hockey community,” stated Mayor Wayne Lippert in presenting Wray with the Freedom of the City.
“All of us are so proud of the Vipers, not just for the great hockey they play, but for all the personal involvement in community service that Duncan and the team give to so many local organizations each season.”
Under Wray’s leadership, the Vipers have become arguably the most successful Junior A hockey franchise in Canada.
The team has won four national championships, five BCHL Fred Page Cup titles and nine Interior Conference finals. They were trying to become the first team ever to win three straight RBC Cups before Sunday’s 2-0 loss in the final in Camrose to the Pembroke Lumber Kings.
Wray, a retired oral surgeon who purchased the then-Vernon Lakers in 1992, is just the 20th recipient in the 50-year history of the Freedom of the City honour, and the first to be recognized since Kal Tire founder Tom Foord was honoured in 2007.
Nominated for the award by former Lakers and Vipers marketing manager Jackie George, Wray was overwhelmed as he fought back tears accepting the honour.
“Somebody will have to pay for this for not telling me,” smiled Wray, looking directly at George. “I’m totally thrilled to be part of this organization. I’ve had the best coaches, the players, these guys, I’m so proud of you (looking at the Vipers, who were wearing their white team sweaters).
“Nobody expected us to be where we got to. God bless you guys. You had the resiliency to come back each time. I’m so proud of what you did.”
Former Vipers head coach and general manager Troy Mick was among those who came to honour Wray.
“I got my first coaching job through Duncan and I’ve gone through many places since, and I’ll always remember the feeling that Duncan was never my boss,” said Mick, now a director of the Kelowna-based Pursuit of Excellence hockey academy, and who won an RBC Cup with Wray in 1999. “He put us in an opportunity to succeed with his vision of touching people’s lives. All of these guys (pointing at the Vipers) come here for a reason and listen to Duncan’s message, be a better person when you leave than when you arrived.”
One who fits the mold and who listened to the message is Vipers defenceman Steve Weinstein, who leaves Vernon after three seasons.
“He’s meant a lot,” said Weinstein. “He’s not like your boss, he’s like a friend. He makes it a good atmosphere and environment. This has been a great experience, the best years of my life.”
Wray, who will be inducted into the B.C. Hockey Hall of Fame in Penticton in July, believes in treating his players like he would treat his own children.
“I believe in being fair, these kids come here for a reason,” said Wray. “It’s a real privilege to have them here.”
Wray said he had no plans to sell the team.
“I’ve always said as long as I’m having fun I will be a part of this team, and as you can see I’m having a blast,” he beamed.