Call them the Canadians, Essos, Vikings, Lakers or Vipers. No matter the moniker used, Vernon has always loved playing Penticton in Junior A hockey.
Crests of Broncos, Knights, Panthers and Vees have adorned the Penticton jerseys since the Valley rivals started battling in 1967. The Vipers and Vees meet for a 22nd time in the B.C. Hockey League playoffs Friday night at the South Okanagan Events Centre.
Game 2 in the Interior Division Ryan Hadfield Cup series goes Saturday, 6 p.m., in Penticton. The third and fourth games go Monday and Tuesday nights at Kal Tire Place.
And while the rivalry is long and heated, Viper head coach/GM Mark Ferner is more focussed on the players involved.
“I think it’s great for Vernon and it’s great for Penticton, but I’m pretty sure the fans won’t be playing,” deadpanned Ferner, who scored three times with the NHL expansion Mighty Ducks of Anaheim back in the day. “This is about our group, our kids and our organization. It’s a good rivalry, but the reality is a lot of the kids don’t know the history behind it.”
Ferner is fine matching the Vees line for line, but knows the Snakes will pay special attention to the likes of Nicholas Jones and Grant Cruickshank up front.
Jones, 20, compiled five goals and a dozen points as Penticton disposed of the Merritt Centennials in seven games. The Edmonton product rang up 41 goals with the AJHL Sherwood Park Crusaders three years ago before spending parts of two seasons with the NCAA Ohio State Buckeyes. The North Dakota commit led the Vees with 62 points this year.
If the Vees need a clutch goal, they call on Cruikshank. The 18-year-old Wisconsin native and future University of Wisconsin Badger has 13 powerplay snipes and eight winning goals. He was tops in Penticton with 32 goals.
“He (Jones) takes a lot of draws and gets a lot of minutes,” said Ferner, on Jones. “He’s a good player. I know they like their match-ups, but we’re comfortable playing against whatever line they throw out there.”
Cruikshank landed in the Okanagan after recording 52 goals in two years with the Milwaukee Jr. Admirals.
“We kind of learn from the second you come here to Penticton that you don’t like Vernon and you play like it,” said Cruikshank. “There’s a lot of energy in the building, you have a lot of energy inside you. Playing with that energy, it’s pretty easy to get in the game early and feel great about your game. You know, play with how you are successful.”
Possessing a great shot isn’t the only thing that makes Cruikshank successful. So does his blazing speed, which he credits to his parents Dave Cruikshank and Bonnie Blair. Cruikshank’s father was a four-time member of the U.S. Olympic speed skating team, as was his mom, who won six medals (five gold) in four Winter Games.
“He really was the one that kind of just helped me with the rules of skating and how to go fast and how to train myself to be a great skater and how to play with pace,” said Cruikshank, whose father works with the L.A. Kings, Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets and Dallas Stars. “Just play fast and skate like the wind.”
Vees’ D Mitch Meek will add another layer to his experience in the rivalry. Meek played for the Vipers in 2014-15.
“It’s unique but I’m lookng forward to the challenge,” said Meek, who collected two assists in 11 playoffs games with the Vipers that season and has two goals and 13 points in 45 career post-season games. “We’re going to do everything we can to win.”
Meek and the Vipers lost Game 7 when Patrick Sexton scored the winner and the team advanced to the RBC Cup.
“Everything is kind of amped up in this type of series, this rivalry,” said Meek, a Victoria native, who is committed to Michigan Tech University. “We just have to tighten up details and play our game.”
This is the fourth straight year the Vipers and Vees have met in the playoffs. The season series was about as even as it gets with each team holding three wins and one draw. The Vees outscored the Vipers 18-17.
In the head to head matchups, the Vipers leaned on Jagger Williamson (1-5-6), Niko Karamanis (4-1-5) and Brett Stapley (2-3-5). Cruikshank, Taylor Ward and Chris Klack were the key contributors for the Vees.
“Every game was high intensity, high emotion, they are a good game,” said Ward, a University of Nebraska Omaha commit. “A lot of physical play. I’m not expecting anything else.”
Ward, Owen Sillinger and Ty Amonte are Vees with NHL fathers.
Captain Riley Brandt said the Vipers will ensure they are tough on the puck and make things difficult for talent like Jones to get creative.
“It’s obviously exciting, it’s been a big rivalry for a lot of years,” said the pride of Trail. “They’ve beat me out the last couple of seasons, and Jags too, and a couple other guys last year. It’s gonna be a real amped up series and the boys are prepared and ready to go.”
Said Vees’ head coach/GM Fred Harbinson on the rivalry: “It’s the fans, it’s the entire city, the community,” he said. “Everybody kind of gets into it. Nobody wants to lose to that other town down the street so to speak. That’s what the players get excited about as well.”
SNAKE BITES: The Vees asked Viper assistant coach Kevin Pedersen to leave their rink Wednesday. Pedersen was in Penticton working with some BC Hockey U15 and 16 players…Vees’ grad Tyson Jost signed with the Colorado Avalanche Wednesday. He was a first-round draft pick in 2016 and pocketed 16 goals and 35 points in 33 games with North Dakota this season…Los Angeles Junior U18 Kings’ F Wyatt Light and D Kade Street are special guests at Viper practices this week. Street is related to former American Olympic skier Picabo Street.