Head coach Kris Mallette is still a ways from determining his roster for the coming Kootenay International Junior Hockey League season, but it is guaranteed to contain a strong local flavour.
Of the 50 hopefuls at North Okanagan Knights main camp this week at Nor-Val Sports Centre, the majority hailed from Vernon, Armstrong, Kelowna and Salmon Arm.
“There’s always some good talent in this area so it’s better to try and support it and put people in the stands, watching their kids close to home,” said Mallette, who guided the Knights to a franchise best 35-16-0-1 record in his first year as head coach.
As usual, question marks will surround the Knights’ roster until players trying out for Junior A teams discover their fate. The most pivotal one for the Knights is netminder Dustin Nikkel, who will be attending the Salmon Arm SilverBacks main camp.
Nikkel, a 19-year-old Kelowna native, was a key ingredient to North Okanagan’s success last season, going 23-13 with three shutouts, a 3.13 goals against average and .890 save percentage.
His competition for the Salmon Arm starter position picked up earlier this week as the SilverBacks acquired 20-year-old net detective Colin Dzijacky from the AJHL Grande Prairie Storm in exchange for future considerations.
Other Knights attending Junior A camps include forwards Eric Chore, who is attending Vernon Viper camp, Alex Klintaire, Ben Greenaway and Derek Andrews.
“It’s all up in the air until the beginning of September, and we’ll figure it out from there,” said Mallette, who will be counting on a returning nucleus of captain Steve Pantazopoulos, sniper Brett Hawrys and smooth-skating defenceman Nathan Browne to help groom the new recruits.
Already committed to the Knights are forward Mat Lambert, a Vernon minor hockey product who play Major Midget last season with the Okanagan Rockets, Darien Head, a 16-year-old defensive prospect out of Salmon Arm, and Dryden Profeit, who won a Midget Tier 1 provincial title with the Prince George Cougars last season.
Said Mallette: “There’s a very good crop of 96s, which is unfortunate this year because we’re only allowed two 16-year-olds. We’re just trying to get these kids in the door now, get them into some exhibition games and show them what we’re all about.”
Pantazopoulos, the Knights’ 20-year-old captain, remembered looking up to veterans like Colin Minardi and Doug Chadwick when he entered the league three years ago. He is happy to return the favour.
“I just try and help them,” said the Kelowna product. “When I was new here, I had a few guys I looked up to so I like to do the same thing for them.
“We’ll probably be pretty young. It’s going to be a big change from last year.”
The Knights, who have Shawn Webb as assistant coach and Brett Tomlinson as goalie coach, face the Chase Chiefs in an exhibition tilt on Friday, Aug. 31. They open the regular season against the host Sicamous Eagles on Friday, Sept. 14.