Vernon products Michael Hails

Vernon products Michael Hails

Hails, Spraggs excel with hockey Lions

Individually, the awards have Michael Hails’ name on them.

Individually, the awards have Michael Hails’ name on them.

To Hails, a Vernon goalie with the Lindenwood (Mo.) Lions college hockey team, a school that plays in the American Collegiate Hockey Association, the honours should include his teammates’ names.

Hails, 20, in his freshman season, was named the Central States Collegiate Hockey League’s rookie of the year after posting an 8-2 record in 11 games played, a goals against average of 2.34 and a .930 save percentage.

He backstopped the Lions to the conference championship, where he was named tournament MVP after making 71 of 74 stops in two games, and a berth in the national championship.

The Lions, whose lineup also includes Vernon’s Riley Spraggs, went 1-1 in the ACHA national tournament with Hails between the pipes for both games, where he stopped 71 of 77 shots in a win over Adrian (Mich.) Bulldogs, and a 5-1 elimination loss to the Arizona State Sun Devils.

Hails and teammate Kevin Walters were named to the ACHA honourable mention all-star team, while Hails was named the goalie on the conference’s second team all-league squad and all-rookie team.

“The awards that were presented to me are not mine at all. They signify the hard work the team, as a whole, has put into winning games,” said Hails, who is studying sports management and marketing.

“I am humbled and honoured with the awards but that was not my original focus. Individual awards are nice but do not compare to a national championship. I am still a bit bitter about our early exit in nationals because we defeated Arizona State during the season.”

The Lions, whose roster featured 11 freshmen, went 17-15-2 overall, 9-6-1 in the conference, with Hails splitting the goaltending chores with Chicago native Cody Karpinski, a sophomore.

Hails and Karpinski became friends on day one of training camp, and pushed each other throughout the year.

“It didn’t matter which one of us played, as long as we won,” said Hails. “Cody pushed me in practice and the weight room to be better. We knew that one of us would become the No. 1 guy but never held it against each other.”

Hails spent last year with the Comox Valley Glacier Kings of the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League, so making the jump from Junior B to college hockey took some adjustment.

“I’m playing with men now,” said Hails. “College players are bigger, stronger, faster and smarter. I took at least a month or two to adjust to the speed of the shots and overall game play.”

Hails called a 1-0 mid-season victory in Edna, Okla. over Spraggs’ former team, the Central Oklahoma Bronchos, the turning point of his season. Hails stopped all 26 shots while Spraggs scored the only goal. The pair were named first- and second-star, respectively.

“Up until then I was battling with minor injuries and illness, but that game the team made it easy for me to make the saves and not worry about getting injured.

“For Riley to get that goal against his former team was fantastic.”

For Spraggs, 23, a Lions junior forward studying exercise science, 2014-15 was also a transition year.

He transferred from the Bronchos (who won the 2015 national championship) to the Lions, where he was welcomed immediately, but admitted to finding it hard to get used to head coach Rick Zombo’s style.

“I think our team had the potential to win nationals and we showed that by consistently being top-five and top-10 teams,” said Spraggs, who appeared in 33 of the Lions’ 34 games, pocketing four goals and 11 points.

“This team plays as a team and has a huge emphasis on defence first, which is not what I have been used to playing for the last few years. I think the change has been beneficial to my overall play, but was frustrating to watch my points total suffer, even though it was worth the change. My season got better as the year went on and I only expect it to get better next year.”

Zombo, who played 652 NHL games with Detroit, St. Louis and Boston, has high praise for both North Okanagan players.

“Michael has had a fantastic season,” said Zombo, who joined Hails on the awards list by being named conference coach of the year. “Every night he gives our team the confidence to play aggressive. Michael possesses tremendous inner drive. He’s a consummate student-athlete He’s a 4.0 student in the classroom and even better on the ice.

“Riley has been very hard-nosed to learn how to play the right way. I’ve challenged him the entire season to accelerate his learning curve and he has never strayed. He has really improved his 200-foot game and playing on both sides of the puck. His character and work ethic allows him to lead from the front.”

Hails and Spraggs are both enjoying life on- and off campus. Spraggs has attended St. Louis Rams and Cardinals games and hopes to go to a Blues game in the near future. Hails has been to a pair of Blues and a Pittsburgh Penguins game.

“Lindenwood has a very good campus with a great school spirit,” said Spraggs. “Most of the school is part of an athletic department and they all live on campus, so you get a chance to meet people from all over the world that have similar interests.”