Lisa VanderVelde/Morning Star Vernon Viper 17-year-old goaltenders Cole Demers

Lisa VanderVelde/Morning Star Vernon Viper 17-year-old goaltenders Cole Demers

Vernon Vipers picked for third place

The Penticton Vees are rated No. 1 in the Interior Conference with the 55th BCHL season starting Friday night.

Brett Hull rang up 105 goals and 188 points one year with the Penticton Knights. Ernie Gare and Duane Dennis of Vernon share the record of seven assists in one game with Ken Stroud of Merritt.

The late Wayne Dye – Vernon’s athlete of the century after being drafted by the NHL and Major League Baseball – holds the local franchise benchmark for 153 career goals.

Vernon’s Dave Oliver helped the Lakers win one Centennial Cup and went on to finish second in the NHL Calder Rookie of the Year voting to Peter Forsberg.

Glenn Anderson, Paul Kariya Mark Recchi, Ray Ferraro, Cliff Ronning, Geoff Courtnall, Stan Smyl, Ryan Walter and Barry Pederson head a large list of alumni who made the NHL.

It’s Year 55 of the B.C. Hockey League, a 17-team circuit with a rich history and the top Junior A loop in the country for promoting its players to NCAA and CIS scholarships.

The Vipers open tonight at the Shaw Centre in Salmon Arm against the Silverbacks. The teams meet Saturday, 6 p.m., at Kal Tire Place.

For in-depth details and photos of your Vipers, check The Morning Star each edition for Viper Vitals.

Black Press sports editors and writers have decided on the following predictions for the Interior Conference:

1. PENTICTON VEES

Key Returnees: F Nicholas Jones (21-42-63), F Owen Sillinger (16-29-45), D Griffin Mendel (2-12-14), F Ben Brar (4-5-9), F Taylor Ward (5-4-9), D David Eccles (2-7-9), and D Gabe Bast (1-5-6).

Rookie Sensations: University of Wisconsin Badger commit Grant Cruikshank showed off his scoring prowess by scoring six times in five preseason games. Prep school players Jacob Kamps, 6-foot-3, 210-pound (Cushing Academy) and Ty Amonte, son of retired NHLer Tony Amonte, improved during the preseason. Amonte, 18, was one of two players from Thayer Academy to reach 70 points. That total had not been reached since Jeremy Roenick racked up 88 in 1988. Amonte won the Boston Bruins’ John Carlton Memorial Trophy as the top male high school player in eastern Massachusetts. Former Regina Pats Canadians Ty Barnstable and Turner Ripplinger also shined. Jared Nash of Stratford Cullitons posted 19 goals and 62 points in 45 GP.

Strengths: The Vees project to have a versatile lineup. Twenty-year-old Mat Robson, who won a championship in the Ontario Junior Hockey League with the Toronto Lakeshore Patriots in 2014-15, will share the crease with 18-year-old Okanagan Hockey Academy grad Nolan Hildebrand, who went 16-6-1 in 24 games, with a .939 save percentage and 2.04 GAA.

Coach’s Quote (Fred Harbinson): “I really look at how we were structured two years ago (lost in RBC Cup semifinal) where it was really hard, if you just focused on one or two guys, somebody else was going to come through. I think that’s how we’re going to be this year. There is just a multitude of other players that I think can contribute.”

2. WEST KELOWNA WARRIORS

Key Returnees: D Nicholas Rutigliano  (6-18-24), D Jake Harrison (6-20-26), F Connor Sodergren (8-22-30), F Quin Foreman (13-13-26), and G Keelan Williams (13-6-0, 3.38 goals against average).

Rookie sensations: With just eight returnees from their national championship team, there’s no shortage of new faces, led by 5-foot-8 F Mitch Martan. Quick and skilled, the Boston College commit had 64 points in 79 games the last two seasons at St. Andrews College in Ontario. The Warriors will also look to the likes of Parm Dhaliwal and Chase Dubois to help fill the offensive void left by the departures of Jonathan Desbiens, Liam Blackburn and Kylar Hope (combined 99 goals). Dhaliwal had 48 points in 35 games at Yale Academy, while Dubois had 34 points in 25 games with the BCMML’s Cariboo Cougars.

Strengths: If winning breeds winning, then the Warriors can expect to carry over some of last season’s Royal Bank Cup prosperity into this campaign. The experience and road travelled by the likes of C Nicholas Rutigliano, D Jake Harrison and forwards Connor Sodergren and Quin Foreman will be invaluable to the club’s newcomers.

Coach’s Quote: (Rylan Ferster). “This a business where you turn over a lot of guys and we’re going to have to adjust to that again this year. It’s a situation where we’ll need our veterans to be leaders. We’re still learning about our team, so it’s a work in progress.”

3. VERNON VIPERS

Key Returnees: F Jimmy Lambert (15-18-33), F and captain Riley Brandt (15-16-31), F Christian Cakebread (12-18-30 in 35GP) F Jagger Williamson (6-21-27) D Mitchell Oliver (4-23-27).

Rookie Sensations: F Niko Karamanis pulled a few hat tricks in intra-squad scrimmages and looks to be a top-line pontgetter. The Comox product pocketed 74 goals and 189 points with Shattuck St. Mary’s High School the last three Midget seasons.  F Austin Adamson dominated the Portland Winterhawks’ fitness testing a few weeks ago, but was caught in the overage game. The 20-year-old Richmond product was used as an energy player during three years with the Saskatoon Blades, Red Deer Rebels and Swift Current Broncos. Goalies Ty Taylor and Cole Demers may be the first 17-year-old goaltending tandem to make a BCHL team. The 6-foot-3, 185-pound Taylor was being seriously wooed by the WHL Prince George Cougars during the Viper camp but wants to go the NCAA route. He compiled the top stats in the Canadian Sport School Hockey League (CSSHL) last year with Delta Prep. Demers, a 5-foot-9, 161-pounder, was a first-team all-star with the Okanagan Rockets of thE Major Midget league. D Shane Kelly, a 6-foot-5, 215-pound shutdown d-man earned 4-17-21 in 32 games with Victory Honda U18s in Michigan last year.

Strengths: The Vipers will roll four lines up front with Cakebread, Karamanis and Brandt expected to see plenty of power play minutes. Considered too soft and small a year ago, the Vipers appear to be meaner and leaner on the back end and up front. D Carter Stephenson, a six-footer, got in eight BCHL games last year and amassed 40 points with the Major Midget Vancouver NW Giants. Both net detectives have highly promising futures.

Coach’s Quote (Mark Ferner):I believe great work ethic and learning to work is as important as talent. We will be aggressive and physical and we will be competitive in races and battles. We will also be well conditioned because if you aren’t conditioned, you can’t do those other three things. Good teams have good players; great teams have great teammates. That’s we’re looking for.”

4. SALMON ARM SILVERBACKS

Key Returnees: F Carson Bolduc (22-34-56), Josh Blanchard (18-26-44), Marcus Mitchell (9-12-21). D Cameron Trott (6-24-30, 28 PIM), Ryley Booth (0-13-13, 49 PIM).

Rookie Sensations: A trio of BCMML players Ben Evanish, Josh Latta and Justin Wilson all have a few games in the BCHL on their resume and managed to score nearly two points per game last season for their respective clubs. G Trevin Kozlowski will provide a solid foundation. He boasted a 1.63 GAA and a .940 save percentage in 23 games. at the Gunnery Prep in Connecticut.

Strengths: The Silverbacks’ power comes from their mix of youth and veteran leaders. In goal, both Michael Botiz and Kozlowski impressed and there should be healthy competition between the duo for playing time. With eight returnees, the Silverbacks should enjoy leadership, maturity and stability. Newcomer Carter Cochrane will add stability to the defence core alongside Cam Trott and Ryley Booth. New players Evanish, Justin Wilson, Nathan Iannone and Josh Latta should provide provide energy.

Coach’s Quote (Brandon West) : “I’ve been really impressed by the level of skill and character shown by our players throughout camp and preseason. We are big, fast, strong and posses a high skill set and can compete with any team in the league.”

5. MERRITT CENTENNIALS

Key Returnees: D Michael Faulkner (5-32-37), F Zach Court (13-16-29), F Tyler Ward (17-10-27), F Brett Jewell (13-13-26), F Nick Fidanza (7-15-22)

Rookie Sensations: With 14 returnees, head coach/GM GM Joe Martin and his assistant Matt Samson could afford to be highly selective in their off-season acquisitions and training camp signings. They were. Between the pipes, the Cents have landed promising 19-year-old Jake Berger from Minnetonka, Minn. He spent last season backstopping the Phoenix Jr. Coyotes in the T1EHL. On the blue line, look for good things from 98-born Zach Metsa out of Delafield, Wis. The future Quinnipiac University Bobcat (2018-19) had seven goals and 17 assists in just 30 games with the Milwaukee Jr. Admirals last year. Up front, Merritt has secured a pair of proven performers from back east in 20-year-old winger Tyler Pietrowski from Curtice, Ohio, and 97-born centreman Ethan Skinner from Kincardine, Ont. A six-foot-2 power forward, Pietrowski racked up 27 goals and 53 points for the Philadelphia Little Flyers of the EHL last season, while Skinner lit it up for Elmira of the GOHL with 84 points in just 49 games.

Strengths: An unbeaten pre-season (4-0-1) would seem to indicate there’s been some early chemistry between the abundance of veterans and the small group of highly-regarded newcomers. The challenge for the coaches will be to get that chemistry to sizzle, not fizzle throughout the rigorous 58-game schedule.

Coach’s Quote (Joe Martin): “We’re fortunate to be returning many character players this season. I like our depth in the forward position, the added scoring, and the key defenseman returning. In net we’ve been good. With the culture that’s growing here, we believe we will be a very good home team. It’s an understatement that our division is tough to win in consistently, but this group is determined.”

6. TRAIL SMOKE EATERS

Key Returnees: F Connor Brown-Maloski 9-26-35, Ross Armour 9-26-35, Kale Howarth 12-15-27, Spencer McLean 3-6-9, and Blaine Caton 1-2-3; D Mitch Stapley 0-14-14; G Linden Marshall 5-4-0, 4.74 GAA.

Rookie Sensations: The Smoke Eaters most vital rookie will be head coach/GM Cam Keith in his first head bench boss post. Keith, a former assistant of the ECHL Cincinnati Cyclones, has already put his mark on the Smokies, making many aggressive moves. Off-season additions include 6-foot-5, 15-year-old D Ethan Martini, who played for Calgary’s Edge School in the CSSHL and was drafted 53rd overall by the Swift Current Broncos in the 2015 Bantam Draft, D Ryan Warner, 6-foot-4, and Tyson Slater, 6-foot-2, and Ryan Moon, a 6-foot-3 F who had a 24-point season as a 16-year-old with the North Okanagan Knights of the KIJHL last season.

Strengths: The Smoke Eaters grew substantially over the off-season and did so without sacrificing speed. Armour, Brown-Maloski, and Howarth look for breakout seasons, and the additions of Josh Laframboise and talented import Andre Ghantous, who were impressive in camp, should give the Smokies adequate punch up front. The acquisition of veteran D Troy Ring, 19, and Cole Williams, 19, from the Langley Rivermen, and Konsta Jaske, 18, of the Wenatchee Wild should help steady a back end that many considered undersized last year, and support returning goalies Linden Marshall, 18, and Zach Dyment, 20.

Coach’s Quote: “Our top three lines will be big and strong; we will battle teams, and kind of be a blue-collar style of hockey where we just grind teams down. If the stars align, I think we’re going to be competitive this year and fight for a playoff spot, and, down the road, we’re going to be very good.”

– With files from Emanuel Sequeira in Penticton, Warren Henderson in West Kelowna, Kevin Mitchell in Vernon, Evan Buhler in Salmon Arm, Ian Webster in Merritt and Jim Bailey in Trail