Their season, like those of their teammates, was ended prematurely by something out of their control.
And for six Vernon Vipers, the heartbreaking but logical decision by Hockey Canada to cancel its 2019-20 post-season at the start of the second round of the playoffs due to the COVID-19 pandemic meant the end of their Junior A careers.
On their webpage, the Vipers paid tribute to the six graduating 20-year-old players: Captain Connor Marritt, Landon Fuller, Matt Kowalski, Connor Sleeth, Dawson Holt and Jackson Caller.
Marritt played three seasons and one game as an affiliate player with the Vipers. He was the leading the BCHL in playoff scoring when the season was canceled. Marritt suited up for 201 regular- and post-season games for the Snakes. His final game was a three-point effort as his team eliminated the Wenatchee Wild in five games.
“It was an honour to be a part of such a prestigious franchise,” says Marritt. a Kelowna native. “I grew up watching the Vipers play and to wear the ‘C’ was a childhood dream.”
He finished his career with 43 goals and 75 assists for 118 points. The hard work his showed every night was a key reason Northern Michigan University had interest and committed to him for next season.
“I was lucky enough to be placed in the perfect billet house and felt like a part of their family from Day 1,” said Marritt. “Most of my cherished moments come from the bonds and friendships I have made. I can’t say thank you enough to everyone who made my dream of being a Viper possible.”
Fuller, from Williams Lake, was an intimidating opponent and fierce competitor on the ice, an absolute fan favourite and respectful young man off the ice. Fuller was the epitome of a hard-nose player who was a loyal teammate that would drop the gloves, throw a big body check and, as his final season would show, could score some timely goals.
He came to the Vipers for his final two seasons of Junior hockey and immediately fit in. Last season he was a big component on the team’s run to the Fred Page Cup Final and this season was the straw that stirred the drink.
“The past two years in Vernon was the most fun I’ve had in Junior hockey,” said Fuller. “The memories I’ve gained with my time there is something I will treasure for the rest of my life.”
Fuller bounced around during his career starting with Tri-City of the Western Hockey League before splitting a season with Salmon Arm and Surrey. He would spend a season in Coquitlam before being acquired early in the 2018-19 season by the Vipers. He is a veteran of 237 games split between the Dub and the BCHL. He finished his career with 15 goals and 29 assists. 10 of those goals came in his final season.
“I will miss coming to the rink every day with my teammates and play the game we love,” said Fuller. “But I am happy I was able to finish my junior career in Vernon.”
Kowalski had the opportunity few ever get and that’s to finish their junior career playing for the team he grew up watching. Learning from former captain Jagger Williamson and embracing each and every moment, Kowalski led the Vipers in offence including an extraordinary 17-game point streak, which flew past his previous career-high.
“It felt pretty amazing to look around and see friends and family in the crowd cheering us all on,” said Kowalski, who fondly recalls the Teddy Bear Toss games.
“Those games were phenomenal. Setting up Jaggy for his first Teddy Bear Toss goal in his last year, he wanted it so bad it felt good to be a part of that moment for him, then to put it home in my last year was really special.”
Perhaps the biggest highlight was Kowalski’s lacrosse-style goal against the Alberni Valley Bulldogs that brought the Kal Tire Place fans to their feet.
He was also the only Viper to have played in all 58 regular-season games.
The Vipers acquired Holt in a WHL deal, and the team couldn’t have been happier with what they received. Holt was an absolute force in the face-off circle, while shorthanded, on the powerplay and every all-around category. Holt was the league’s final Subway Player of the Week for registering nine points in the final three games against the Wild.
“Coming into the Vipers organization, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but from top to bottom it was a class organization and I am so grateful for my time as a Viper,” said Holt. “I can’t thank my teammates, coaches, billets, owners and all the fans for making my last year of junior the best one yet.”
He finished the season with 23 goals and 24 assists in the regular season before adding another nine points in the playoffs. Between his time in the WHL and BCHL he accumulated 283 games played.
Vernon also got Caller, a defenseman, from the WHL. His passion and preparation did wonders for the younger Vipers who realized quickly what it took to be junior hockey players.
“I’ve learned so much and it’s been an experience of a lifetime,” said the Kamloops native. “I’m just very grateful to have had the opportunity to play junior hockey at a high level. They’ve been the best years of my life.”
Caller was also able to contribute offensively as well scoring a career-high five goals and contributing with 12 assists. Two of those goals came on the power play. He was essentially an ironman for the team getting into all 55 regular-season games and five playoff games. He finishes his junior career with 277 career games played.
Every junior hockey player is looking for an opportunity at the next step, that was most definitely the case for Sleeth, who joined the Vipers after playing for the Kanata Lasers in the Central Canada Hockey League. Sleeth rang up 74 points with the Lasers and hoped to build that into a scholarship.
The Markham, Ont. product took those skills and applied them to be a solid force in the faceoff circle and a great ability of shutting down the opposition. Most importantly was the chance to play in front of a fan base as great as Vernons.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better group of guys or organization to spend my final year of junior hockey,” said Sleeth. “It wasn’t the ending we all imagined but the memories and friends that were made this year will last a lifetime.”
Sleeth was as close to an ironman as it comes, playing in all but one regular-season game and all five postseason games.