Two playoff series victories later and the Vernon Vipers are beginning to resemble a championship hockey team. They claimed the BCHL’s Interior Division Ryan Hatfield Memorial Trophy and are now chasing the Fred Page Cup. On their bucket list is the Royal Bank Cup national title in May.
Vernon has a rich history of winning. They are the only team in Canada with six Centennial Cup and RBC banners.
Looking back at those teams, there was a unique combination of personalties. The leaders led, the role players did a touch more, the defence and goalies tightened up and the goal scorers connected. And those teams were tight. They enjoyed being around one another pretty much 24-7.
Twins Connor and Kellen Jones were always organizing baseball games at nearby Kin Race Park after practice during their RBC years in Vernon. They didn’t want the experience to end and now they’re done four extraordinary years with the University of Quinnipiac Bobcats near Hartford and are eady for pro hockey.
Moments after interviewing West Kelowna Warriors’ coach Rylan Ferster when his club was knocked out of the playoffs by the Vipers, we talked about how fast the years move by in Junior hockey. Ferster can still picture his days as Vernon Laker as if they were last week.
These are young men enjoying the moment. They likely already recognize it’s going to go down as the best time of their lives. Ferster mentioned how college hockey gets more like real life with a tough academic schedule and practices which are treated like games.
For Viper captain Ryan Renz, reaching the post-season felt so great.
“It’s just about pride and being proud,” said Renz, before the playoff started. “After two seasons of not being in the playoffs, it starts to wear on a guy and a team. To get back in the hunt will give ourselves some more preparation and some games that mean something in the playoffs before we get to the RBC. That’s what we’re worried about now, is having a good run and not losing out early and having that time off.”
The Vipers should survive this round-robin format and move on to the championship series. And they will look back and see how they matured as a team by stopping the Warriors and then the first-place Penticton Vees.
Vees’ captain Brad McClure told me before the playoffs that this year’s tight Interior chase was a real blast.
“It makes for a good game every night and that’s what you want as a player. It makes you better as a player. It’s a tough competition every night and that’s what makes the league so strong, especially our division. It’s real tight and I think it’s gonna make for some exciting playoffs.”
McClure said losing Game 7 at the South Okanagan Events Centre was one of the worst feelings he’s ever encountered. His time in Penticton was golden.
“It was unbelievable. I couldn’t ask for a better two seasons,” said McClure.“Right from the coaching staff to the trainers. Everyone here is professional. You get treated like a pro. They give you every opportunity to be a better hockey player and a better person.”
The championship Viper teams of the past will tell you a similar story about Duncan Wray and staff.
What’s cool about the Vipers’ playoff run is their second-leading pointgetter, Dexter Dancs, had not scored until Friday night. Mason Blacklock, who is playing hurt, has zero snipes. And Demico Hannoun recorded his second of the playoffs in Friday’s win.
All three of those players may end up in pro hockey down the road. They are struggling to put up playoff numbers, but in the meantime, their teammates are stepping up.
Colton Sparrow scored 11 times in the regular season. He leads the Snakes with six snipes and 16 points in the playoffs. Brendan Persley put up six goals and 19 points in 48 games. He has 7+7 in the post-season.
“Playoffs are a different animal from the regular season.” said Sparrow. “We’re not worried about guys not scoring. They are gonna be there when we need goals. We have so much depth; we don’’t care about who is scoring.”
Added Viper defenceman Jared Wilson: “That’s playoffs, that’’s what it’s all about, having depth and scoring. Usually, your top line is seeing their shut-down line so if you get your other lines scoring, it just takes pressure off those guys.”