Arenas around the B.C. Hockey League, like Kal Tire Place in Vernon, sit empty and silent after the league followed many such leagues around North America and postponed or canceled its season in the wake of COVID-19. (Vernon Vipers photo)

Vernon Vipers coach still stunned by unexpected end to post-season

Jason McKee, organization coming to terms with BCHL canceling season in wake of COVID-19 outbreak

Instead of preparing his team for a playoff battle against an arch-rival and watching video highlights of the first two games, Jason McKee spent his Sunday pondering what happened before Game 1.

The Vernon Vipers head coach and general manager was coming to terms Sunday, March 15, with the B.C. Hockey League’s abrupt end to its year after the league announced last week it would cancel the remainder of the playoff season because of COVID-19 fears. Round 2 of the playoffs was set to start Friday night.

“No one expected this,” said McKee of the shutdown. “It’s something I haven’t been through. Hopefully, we’ve done the right thing.”

The Vipers were to have taken on the division-champion Penticton Vees in a best-of-seven BCHL Interior Conference semifinal starting Friday at the South Okanagan Events Centres. Games 1 and 2 were in the Peach City with the series slated to shift back to Kal Tire Place Monday, March 16, for Game 3. Game 4 was to have been played in Vernon Wednesday, March 18.

Nobody knew at the time that a 6-4, Game 4 win over the Wenatchee Wild at Kal Tire Place on Wednesday, March 4, would be the Vipers’ final home of the season. They dispatched the Wild two nights later in Washington state and had a week to prepare for the date with the Vees, who beat Vernon five out of seven times in the regular season, including the last four meetings.

READ MORE: Vernon Vipers playoff run shelved amid coronavirus concerns

READ MORE: BC Hockey cancels all provincial championships due to COVID-19 outbreak

Instead, the players and coaches were following the news of the coronavirus outbreak, as was the league, who joined pro and amateur loops across North America in canceling or postponing their seasons.

“The players were obviously disappointed and I’ll leave it at that,” McKee said. “There was no closure for them.”

For graduating players Landon Fuller, Jackson Caller, Dawson Holt, Connor Marritt — the team’s 2019-20 captain — Connor Sleeth and Vernon product Matt Kowalski, the 8-3, Game 5 win over Wenatchee was the last of their Junior A careers. Holt was the league’s final Subway Player of the Week for picking up nine points in the final three games of the series against the Wild. Marritt was an honourable mention.

“For the 20s (year-olds), not knowing they had played their last game makes it tough,” McKee said. “We’re all hopeful that we can get back to playing hockey at some point but probably not until next season.”

Vipers owner John Glen said on the team’s website that the Vipers “feel compassion for all of our league partners and the many others affected by the decision.”

“This is without question an unprecedented circumstance that has caused the remainder of the playoffs to be canceled,” Glen said. “We respect the enormity of this difficult but necessary decision. The players, staff, volunteers and billet families are extremely saddened with the season concluding unexpectedly.”

Glen thanked the players, coaches, trainers, staff and, of course, the fans on behalf of the organization.

“It has been a year of determination and hard work that saw this group post a 30-win season,” Glen said. “We owe a ton of gratitude to our supporters and community partners, without whom none of this could have happened. With the off-season being longer than anticipated, we turn our attention and focus to next season working hard to make 2020-21 another success.”

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