A week after saying goodbye to the franchise’s ancestral home, the Vernon Vipers bid a tearful goodbye to longtime beloved owner Duncan Wray Saturday night at Kal Tire Place.
Wray, who was introduced and honoured on the red carpet prior to a throwback B.C. Hockey League game at Civic Arena last Saturday, died Thursday in his sleep in Victoria, on his 68th birthday.
A father-figure to young Junior A players since he bought the team in 1992, Wray celebrated four national championships, including back-to-back in 2009 and 2010.
Each BCHL team will hold a moment of silence in his honour prior to their next home game. The Vipers entertained the Cowichan Valley Capitals Saturday.
A fragile group who huddled together on their knees to honour their fallen owner at Thursday’s practice, the Vipers struggled in a 5-0 loss to the Merritt Centennials before 400 fans Friday night at the Nicola Valley Arena.
“It’s tough,” Viper head coach Mark Ferner told The Morning Star, moments after the loss. “You put on a brave face and play the game. I don’t know if there is a right thing to say; there’s no manual for this. It was a pretty quiet and emotional dressing room tonight.”
Ferner, who coached those back-to-back title teams, is on his second tour of duty with the Vipers, leaving once to coach the Everett Silvertips of the Western League for two years and serve as an assistant with the WHL Kamloops Blazers. He returned to Vernon in 2015.
“Duncan and I had mutual respect for one another,” said a disraught Ferner. “Absolutely, I will remember him as a great owner. He just let you do your job. You still sit here with your thoughts with no time to reflect. We had a lot of good times. Duncan had five kids, four boys and a girl. Actually, he had six kids, he had the Vernon Vipers. This isn’t about me, this about the Wray family.”
The Vipers fell to 27-10-1-4 atop the Interior Division, four points ahead of the Penticton Vees, who have three games in hand. The sixth-place Cents improved to 17-19-2-1.
Merritt got goals from Colten Gerlib, Mathieu Gosselin, Bradley Cocca, Christian Sabin and Henry Cleghorn. Austin Roden made 24 saves for his first shutout of the season.
Zach Ristau, who just returned to Merritt from the USHL, pocketed three assists. Anthony Yamnitsky took the loss with 19 stops.
Meanwhile, the Trail Smoke Eaters tied the Vees 2-2 before 3,108 fans at the South Okanagan Events Centre. Vernon’s Blaine Caton gave Trail the lead in the first period with his 11th of the season.
West Kelowna edged Wenatchee 5-4 in OT.