Shane Kelly earned a NCAA Division 1 scholarship, Hunter Zandee has been cleared for action and a few players previously in sick bay are feeling like a million dollars.
That’s where the Vernon Vipers stand as they prepare to finally open the B.C. Hockey League playoffs after a 20-day break.
Game 1 in the best-of-seven Interior Division semifinal series against the Trail Smoke Eaters goes Friday night at Kal Tire Place. The second game is Saturday back in Vernon.
Kelly is a monster defenceman with more elements than most of his peers in the league. The rookie was on NHL Central Scouting Bureau’s watch list last year and now he’s locked up a schollie with the Air Force Academy Falcons for 2018. He flew to Colorado Springs the day after Vernon’s final regular-season game against Trail, checking out the campus and having dinner with coaches and some players.
“It’s gorgeous,” said the big-time Red Wings and Tigers fan who played hoops, field lacrosse and soccer growing up. “The campus backs up to the Rocky Mountains. With blue skies and big mountains, it reminds me of B.C. It felt like a special place; it felt right.”
The 6-foot-5, 215-pound red-head out of Detroit rang up three goals and 12 points along with 97 penalty minutes in his first BCHL season.
“He’s got things you can’t teach,” said Vernon head coach/GM Mark Ferner. “He’s got a big, long reach, he’s a terrific kid and for a big body like that, he can also make great skilled plays. He has a high hockey IQ. He’s big and mean and he can defend. He will be a great college player.”
Kelly, who turns 20 in December, is one of three current BCHLers committed to Air Force, along with West Kelowna Warriors D Tyler Jutting and Surrey Eagles F Robert Johnson.
Falcons’ assistant coach Andy Berg was in the Okanagan for talks with Jutting when he watched Kelly face the Powell River Kings.
“They like my size and that I can still get my feet moving and move the puck and I compete hard,” said Kelly, who has two younger brothers in hockey.
Kelly, who also got some looks from St. Lawrence Saints in New York and Canisius Golden Griffins in Buffalo, compiled 11 goals, 38 points and 113 penalty minutes in two seasons of U18 with Victory Honda in Michigan.
The Falcons’ current roster features BCHL alums Billy Christopoulos and Matt Serratore. The Falcons compete in the NCAA’s Atlantic Hockey Association along with Bentley, RIT, Robert Morris, AIC, Army, Holy Cross, Niagara, Sacred Heart, Mercyhurst and Canisius.
Zandee, meanwhile, used the first-round bye to heal his left knee which was seriously injured on a low check Jan. 25 in Penticton. He is 100 per cent after surgery.
“That (bye) was a big thing for me,” said Zandee, a roadrunner with a ferocious forecheck. “I needed that to get fully healed. It was a long time off and I can’t wait for the playoffs to start. I’m excited about my new linemates, Ryan Brushett and Austin Adamson.”
Zandee, a Kelowna native, says the Vipers expect seven-game series throughout the Interior run. He’s been impressed with guest coach Jerred Smithson, a 38-year-old Vernon product who played 606 NHL games before retirement.
“He helps out a lot. He’s a great guy and he’s a centreman and he’s been in the league for a while. He’s helping the centreman with faceoffs and penalty kill stuff and all the roles he played.”
Adamson, a former WHLer, is thrilled to have Zandee back to the Viper lineup.
“It’s huge,” said Adamson, a Richmond resident. “He’s a great player. He brings physicality, he works hard and I think me, him and Brusher will work well together.”
The series will be tough on the Stapley family of Campbell River. Viper centre Brett Stapley will be going up against older brother Mitch, a d-man with the Smokies.
“We have a friendly wager and it will be weird playing my brother but it will be a cool experience,” said Brett. “My parents are pretty pumped up for the series.”
Brett said the brothers often played road hockey growing up, building their own rink for one winter of shinny.
“I’d say he’s a better skater; he plays defence. Maybe, I have the upper hand with the dangling.”
Students and children can pick up complimentary tickets at the Viper box office, through sponsorship of Hytec, The Morning Star and KISS-FM. The series shifts to Cominco Arena Monday and Tuesday. Game 5, if required, goes Thursday in Vernon.