General manager Troy Mick is the first to admit his Salmon Arm SilverBacks weren’t all that good to start the B.C. Hockey League season back in September.
After the opening weekend Showcase event in Chilliwack, Mick, who also held head coaching duties then, quickly realized changes were needed.
Unable to achieve his goals while holding down both coaching and GM roles, and unwilling to wait until the offseason to make front office changes, Mick brought in Scott Robinson as coach so he could focus on the business and scouting aspects of the operation.
“Once we started the season and camp we realized we just weren’t that good,” said Mick, who guided the Vernon Vipers to a Junior A national title in 1998-99.
“I saw the rest of the league and went ‘Wow, we’re a long ways away.’ We really had to start over.”
Mick and Robinson, with help from assistant coach Brandon West, proceeded to rebuild the team on the fly, trading away 13 of 17 returning players. The bold moves have paid off as the Gorillas have gone from league stepping stone to playoff contender, all in one season.
They open the Fred Page Cup playoffs tonight against the Interior Division-winning Penticton Vees at the South Okanagan Events Centre.
“It’s been good for the franchise to get everything turned around here,” said Mick, whose son Logan plays with the Vipers. “Making the playoffs was huge for our program, and more importantly our community.
“We’ve been able to do it quicker than maybe a lot of people thought we would. That’s just our coaching staff being dedicated.
“I didn’t have to worry about overseeing them because of their experience and I was able to go out and recruit and evaluate players. We believe in each other’s philosophy.”
At the heart of the SilverBacks’ youthful talent pool is a trio of Vernon forwards – Alex Gillies, Alex Jewell and Harlan Orr. Through his local connections, Mick has watched them all develop from minor hockey standouts into bona fide top-six players.
Gillies took huge strides from an impressive 16-year-old rookie season, leading the ‘Backs in goals (21) and finishing second in team scoring with 47 points in 51 games.
“He started a little slow but then when we were done with all our moves he just took off,” said Mick. “He’s one of the best 95s in the league, no question.”
Jewell, who recorded 4-11-15 in 48 games, joined Salmon Arm in a deal with the Vees in November. Mick said he was a key part of a deal that sent savvy puck moving d-man Sean Flanagan to Penticton.
“When he went to Osoyoos (KIJHL Coyotes, 2011-12), that was a real big year,” said Mick. “They did a great job with him as far the development and then he went on a run with Penticton in the playoffs.
“His work ethic and character really add to what we want to do over the next couple years.”
In the 18-year-old Orr (12-15-27 in 48 games), the SilverBacks have a legitimate scoring threat. After a failed early-season audition with the Surrey Eagles, Orr lit it up with the North Okanagan Junior B Knights before making good on his second BCHL attempt with Salmon Arm.
“He is a natural goal scorer,” said Mick. “He fits into the age demographic that we wanted to build around. He’s really adjusted his game to this level and scored a lot of really big goals for us.”
With potentially 22 returnees for next season, Mick is happy to relinquish his role as the axeman.
“My office was a very intimidating place,” he grinned. “No one wanted to come near me. It’s all for the better now. I hate the trading business of the game but we had to do it.”
The SilverBacks showed moxy in winning four of their final five games (all of them were on the road and three of them were comeback wins) just to make the playoffs. They now face a colossal challenge in taking on Fred Harbinson’s defending RBC Cup champion Vees, who won the season series 5-2. All but two of the games were decided by one goal.
“We’ve had real good games with them all year,” said Mick. “There wasn’t a game we weren’t involved in.
“They’re highly skilled with a lot of offence, so 5-on-5 is where we need to focus ourselves and play them hard and take time and space away.”
Meanwhile, Vernon captain Brett Corkey capped his Junior A career by earning the Vipers’ MVP and Top Defenceman Awards at the team’s annual banquet Monday night at the Prestige Inn.
Other award winners include:
Fan Favourite – Colton Sparrow
Leading Scorer – Mason Blacklock
Rienie Holland Community Service – TJ Dumonceaux
Unsung Hero – Brendan Persley
Most Sportsmanlike – Bryce Eviston
Rookie of the Year – Michael Statchuk
Bill Brown Academic Excellence – Mike Roberts
Most Improved – Danny Todosychuk
Wayne Buck Memorial Award – Ryan Renz
Blueliners’ scholarship ($1,000) – Marc Hetnik