When NHL prospect Ivan Kulbakov of Belarus landed in the Youngstown Phantoms’ dressing room last fall, Darion Hanson knew he was going to be watching a lot of hockey.
Hanson asked the U.S. Hockey League team for a trade and he got his wish in late November. The amiable Minnesota product, who was sought by Vernon Viper head coach/GM Mark Ferner last summer, headed to the Viper den and instantly made an impact.
The 6-foot-3, 181-pound native of East Bethel finished the regular season with eye-popping stats: first in the B.C. Hockey League at 14-4 with a 1.84 goals against average and .945 save percentage. He rarely lets in a shaky goal and is ultra competitive in practice.
Alternative captain Jagger Williamson totally endorsed Hanson as the Snakes’ MVP, an award given Hanson following Vernon’s 7-1 win over the Trail Smoke Eaters Saturday night before 2,122 fans at Kal Tire Place.
“That was a no-brainer; I think everybody voted for him,” said Williamson. “I knew right away how good he was. I remember a practice at PV (Priest Valley Arena) and he was getting mad when we scored on him. We could tell right away we had a really good No. 1 goalie.”
Hanson went 1-4 with Youngstown, a Ohio franchise owned by former NHLer Troy Loney.
“I was recruited by Youngstown to be the No. 1 guy, but I got stuck behind Ivan, who was really good so it was tough for me. The coaches understood and when they said they would trade me, I thought it might be Vernon because Mark had tried to recruit me last summer. Coming here has been huge. Everyday I wake up and it feels amazing how things have panned out. I like the league, I like the city and I’ve always liked Canada. Minnesota is pretty much Canada.”
Hanson, a huge Minnesota Wild backer, has posted miniscule numbers most of his career. He sported a 2.28 GAA and .914 save percentage with the North American League Aston Rebels in Pennsylvania last year. Hanson was an East Division All-Star and First Rookie Team choice.
He compiled a 1.22 GAA with the U16 Omaha Lancers and had a 1.96 number with the U18 Lancers. He’s loving the atmosphere in the BCHL.
“This is a my first Junior team that has a fan base. It’s fun playing in front of big crowds here and in Wenatchee and Penticton.”
Hanson, who turns 21 in April, has an NCAA scholarship with the Union Dutchmen in New York for next season. He’s unsure of his major but is leaning towards getting a degree in anthropology. Making the NHL has always been a bucket-list item.
“Every kid who plays hockey in Minnesota wants to play for the Wild. It’s impossible to say no to making money in the game. Playing pro is a huge process. I still have this year and four years of college to go, but it’s still a dream.”
Meanwhile, Brett Stapley pulled the hat trick as the Vipers ambushed the Smoke Eaters to finish the regular season.
Steven Jandric supplied 2+1, while Jimmy Lambert pocketed three assists, giving the Vipers’ top line 10 points. Jandric was Vernon’s leading scorer on the year with 27 goals and 51 points.
Vernon, who finished second in the Interior Division so receive a first-round playoff bye, open the post-season at home Friday, March 17.
The Smokies ended up third, two points ahead of the West Kelowna Warriors and Merritt Centennials. Trail begins a best-of-seven series Friday night against the sixth-place Salmon Arm Silverbacks. The Warriors and Cents play Game 1 in their series Friday night in West Kelowna.
Vernon will play the highest seed remaining following the opening round. The Vipers finished 30-19-5-4, sixth overall in the 17-team BCHL. Wenatchee was tops at 45-9-4-0.
The Wild face the Prince George Spruce Kings, while the Chilliwack Chiefs meet the Langley Rivermen, the Victoria Grizzlies battle the Nanaimo Clippers and the Powell River Kings tangle with the Cowichan Valley Capitals in other first-round series.
Las Vegas product Brendan Harris of Wenatchee won the points derby with 23 goals and 98 points, while teammate Charlie Combs of St. Louis was the king with 52 and 84 points. Both players have NCAA scholarships with Bemidji State Beavers of Minnesota.
Ryan Brushett and Williamson also scored for the Vipers, who got two assists from defenceman Cameron Trott. Luke Santerno replied for the Smokies (26-26-5-1). D Michael Ufberg collected one helper to finish with 37 points, tops among Viper blueliners. The Philadelphia product was chosen the Snakes’ Rookie of the Year.
Ty Taylor registered 33 saves while improving to 13-12. He sported a 2.96 GAA and was named the Vipers’ Most Improved Player. North Okanagan Junior B Knight grad Zach Dyment allowed seven goals on 34 shots before being relieved by Linden Marshall.
Winger Brody Dale was chosen Vernon’s Fortis Energy Player of the Game. Viper forward Jesse Lansdell took on Kyle Chernenkoff 5:14 into the third period in the game’s only scrap.
Vernon held period leads of 2-1 and 4-1. The Vipers held a post-game, on-ice awards ceremony.
Veteran Elijiah Barriga bagged three goals as Salmon Arm brushed back West Kelowna 5-3 Saturday night before 1,226 fans at the Shaw Centre. Barriga completed his hat trick with an empty-netter with 59 seconds remaining for his 30th snipe of the season.
The other Viper awards winners were:
Top defenceman: Cooper Watson.
Unsung Hero: Lambert.
Most Sportsmanlike: Niko Karamanis/Austin Adamson.
Inspirational Player: Hunter Zandee.
Wayne Buck Memorial Award: Stapley.
Bill Brown Memorial Academic Award: Stapley.
Blueliners Club Scholarship: Connor Clouston.
Rienie Holland Memorial Community Service: Williamson.
Fan Favourite: Riley Brandt.