They’ve played some basketball and golf in between visits to the beach. It’s now Game On for the Vernon Vipers as the 56th B.C. Hockey League season opens Friday night in Salmon Arm.
The Snakes are stacked more than the MGM Grand blackjack tables with 10 returnees and another five players with Junior A or higher experience acquired through trades.
Even former Viper Adam Tambellini, a New York Ranger draft who was skating with the team Wednesday (as was Brady Brassart of the Minnesota Wild), couldn’t help but notice the wheels and talent of veterans like Jimmy Lambert and Brett Stapley.
Lambert, who will join Jagger Williamson (expected to be named captain), Jesse Lansdell and d-man Shane Kelly as the main leadership group, was all smiles after practice.
Asked about the team’s mindset after head coach and director player personnel Mark Ferner disposed of three forwards to reduce his roster to the allowed 23, Lambert was very confident.
“I guess, every day, we gotta get better from here on out,” said Lambert. “We have a very fast and skilled team and our goaltending and defence is also going to be a positive for us too. Mark has set us up well to be successful this year so we’re all excited to get things going.”
Some Hot Stove Leagues around town are already comparing this bunch to past Viper teams, which won championships with the Jones twins and Braden Pimm. Vernon will not be an underdog most nights.
“It’s always nice to know that guys wanna beat you,” said Lambert. “If they don’t wanna beat you, then’s there’s really no motivation. It can kind of make you a little big in the head, but you gotta make sure that you’re on top of things and everything you do is for the team and for the guys sitting next to you.”
Lambert said the new veterans and seven rookies have fit in nicely with the 10 returnees. They had a blast golfing at the par-3 Highlands Golf Course in Coldstream. Lambert is high on the newbies.
“(Keyvan) Mokhtari, that kid he’s got some speed and skill. (Jordan) Sandhu, that kid is a shifty player, he kind of reminds me of Liam Finlay a little bit. (Coleton) Bilodeau is a good hometown boy, he’s the next Jagger Williamson. And we’ve got Alex Swetlikoff and Josh Prokop, they played in that academy league in Canada. I think they’ve all set things up well to do good here and it’s going to be fun to see what they do in this league.”
Swetlikoff is just 16 and looks and plays like he’s 20. The ultra-talented Kelowna product may end up with Lambert and Stapley on the first line.
Ferner had an emotional Wednesday since he sent veteran centre Ryan Brushett along with forwards Simon Sagissor and Quinton Ong out of town.
Brushett was dealt to the Surrey Eagles for future considerations while Sagissor was released.
Ong, an offseason recruit, was dealt to the Alberta League Bonnyville Pontiacs for future considerations (cash) and the rights to 19-year-old defenceman Jake Gresh.
Brushett, a 19-year-old creative centre out of Quebec, rang up 10 goals and 26 points in 50 games with Vernon last year. He split the previous season between two USHL teams.
“It was a good organization; I really had a lot of fun with this group of guys,” said Brushett, as he hugged trainer/equipment manager Tyro (Skip) Deeg goodbye outside the Kal Tire Place doors Wednesday afternoon. “I really liked being coached by Mark and the assistants. I’m a little sad to leave, but also excited for a new opportunity. I don’t know anybody in Surrey, but your teammates usually become your friends so hopefully I will gel with them.”
Sagissor, a Minnesota product who turns 20 next month, joined the Snakes late season and had one assist in 18 games.
“We had a tough day today,” said Ferner. “Ryan’s been good for us. He’s a great teammate and he’s very skilled and he needs to play in a top-six role. He’s done everything we’ve asked of him, but with this group I put together over the summer, it makes it really tough for him and Quinton Ong and Simon Sagissor. It’s none of those guys’ fault; they’re all good players and they’re going to be good for their teams.
“They didn’t do anything wrong. I tried to explain to them that we are very deep and we have to give our young players a chance to develop since they are the future of our organization. At the same time, we’re concerned with winning this year.”
Ong, a 5-foot-6, 126-pounder, racked up 28 goals and 58 points with the Major Midget Saskatoon Contacts last season.
Ferner called the Ong deal a “risk and reward” situation since Gresh is currently at the USHL Dubuque Fighting Saints camp. The Avon, Conn. product was nominated for Rookie of the Year in the AJHL after posting eight goals and 33 points. He has a scholarship with the University of Alaska-Fairbanks Nanooks.
Gresh, because he is American, would have to agree to be traded to the Vipers.
The Vipers entertain the Silverbacks Saturday, 6 p.m., at Kal Tire Place.
The Silverbacks, who traded 20-year-old forward Connor Sundquist (13-17-30 last year) to Surrey for futures, will look to veteran Marcus Mitchell and flashy rookie Hudson Schandor up front, newcomer Mitch Stapley (Brett’s brother) on defence and five-year veteran Bo Didur in net for wins.
New bench bosses in place are Scott Atkinson with Salmon Arm, Matt Hughes with the Alberni Valley Bulldogs, Brian Passmore with the Cowichan Valley Capitals, Adam Maglio with the Prince George Spruce Kings and Brandon West with the Eagles.
The most obvious alteration this season is the move by the Wenatchee Wild from the Mainland Division to the Interior. Each of the other six Interior teams will have multiple visits from the defending regular-season champs.
“The first big event on our calendar again this season is the Bauer BCHL Showcase, the sixth since the event was first hosted in 2012,” said media director Brent Mutis. “We expect there to be close to 200 scouts from the professional and college ranks there to evaluate players.”
In 2016-17, the BCHL saw 151 players committed to college programs, a new all-time high. Three BCHL graduates who participated in past Showcase events made it to the NHL last season in Troy Stecher of the Vancouver Canucks, Danton Heinen of the Boston Bruins and Tyson Jost of the Colorado Avalanche.
Vernon takes on the Bulldogs Thursday, Sept. 21 to open the Showcase. The Vipers battle the Powell River Kings on the Friday afternoon. The league has 67 players with scholarships locked up with the Penticton Vees leading with 16, followed by the Vipers with a dozen.