All 16 teams will be in action this weekend in Chilliwack as the B.C. Hockey League launches into the 2012-13 regular season with its inaugural Showcase event at Prospera Centre.
The Vernon Vipers play two games, the first against the defending Fred Page Cup champion Penticton Vees Saturday night. They take on the four-time Coastal champion Powell River Kings Sunday morning.
The league think tank reshuffled its divisions this year, sending both the Prince George Spruce Kings and Chilliwack Chiefs over to the Coastal Conference. Here is a look at how the Black Press sports reporters have ranked the remaining six Interior Conference teams heading into the season.
1. PENTICTON VEES
Key Returnees: F Wade Murphy (36-55-91), F Cody DePourcq (6-12-18), D Troy Stecher (5-37-42), G Chad Katunar (13-2-0, 2.87 GAA, .887 SV%), F Sam Mellor (4-5-9) Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves in National Collegiate Athletics Association (acquired through trade with Trail).
Rookie Sensations: This year’s 16-year-old will be Kamloops minor hockey product Ryan Gropp. This sixth overall pick by the Seattle Thunderbirds in the 2011 Western Hockey League draft starred with the Okanagan Hockey Academy Midget prep team, scoring 21 goals for 51 points in 41 games. He appeared in two games as a call-up with the Vees, scoring once. Louie Nanne, grandson of former Minnesota North Stars’ general manager Lou Nanne, played with the Minnesota’s Edina Hornets high school team, the same school that produced former Vee Steven Fogarty. Nanne, a seventh-round pick of the Minnesota Wild in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, had 12 goals and 20 points in 24 games. He also played for Team Southwest and tallied seven goals and 20 points in as many games. Dexter Dancs is a familiar name for Vees fans. With his ticket booked to the University of Michigan, Dancs played 15 games for the Vees as an affiliate collecting one helper. The North Vancouver product had a strong season with the KIJHL’s Osoyoos Coyotes, scoring 29 times and adding 38 helpers in 42 games.
Strengths: Goaltending is expected to be a strength again. Katunar earned invaluable experience during the playoffs when Michael Garteig was injured, and helped push the Vees to the 2012 Doyle Cup against the Brooks Bandits. He is confident and eager to lead the Vees in defending their RBC Cup championship. Vees’ head coach/GM Fred Harbinson believes his defensive core will be strong and deep and feels he has four solid lines.
Coach’s quote: Harbinson: “I really enjoy this group already. I think they are going to be a fun team to work with. The one thing that I want to do that is the same as last year, and it’s non-negotiable, is that we want to work as hard as we did last year and we want to have guys that buy into their roles like the guys did last year.”
2. Vernon Vipers
KEY RETURNEES: F Adam Tambellini (27-29-56), F Aaron Hadley (17-23-40), D Brett Corkey (2-32-34), Ryan Renz (1-19-20).
ROOKIE SENSATIONS: F Craig Martin finished third in KIJHL scoring as a 16-year-old with the Beaver Valley Nitehawks, recording 48-48-96 in 50 games; D Michael Statchuk was the Prince Albert Mintos’ captain and top scoring d-man, posting 13-26-29 in 44 games. The 5-foot-11, 190-pound Wadena, Sask. native was also named Top Defenceman at the Macs Midget AAA Tournament in Calgary. F Mitchell McAllister was captain of the Strathmore, Alta.’s UFA Bisons, racking up 14-25-39, along with 100 penalty minutes, in 34 games. He will bring energy to the Viper lineup.
STRENGTHS: With a balanced crop of returning d-men – including Corkey, Renz, Marc Hetnik and Geoff Crisfield – augmented by several promising recruits, the Vipers boast one of the league’s most formidable bluelines. Up front, Tambellini, Pearce Eviston, Martin and Braeden Russell will provide some scoring touch, while veterans like Colton Sparrow and Hadley can play in all situations and make life miserable for the opposition.
COACH’S QUOTE: Jason Williamson – “We’re going to play with some good energy, we’re going to be an exciting team to watch. We’ve got some high-end talent and some hard-working kids and I like our D corps.”
3. West Kelowna Warriors
Key Returnees: F Max French (25-14-39), F Shawn Hochhausen (11-20-31), F Marcus Basara (16-25-41), F David Pope (8-17-25), D Josh Monk (7-14-21).
Rookie Sensations: Warriors’ head coach Rylan Ferster had a solid year of recruiting, bringing in players from Western Canada and starts the year with just six rookies. On defence, Penticton native Adam Plant joins the Warriors from the Okanagan Hockey Academy and is already committed to Harvard University. Jetlan Houcher and Ambrose Firkus were top players in Saskatchewan while Matt Anholt joins the Warriors from Lloydminster and Lake Country’s Brent Lashuk arrives from the Kelowna Chiefs of the KIJHL.
Strengths: With a dozen returning players and four newcomers with junior A experience, the Warriors will ice a veteran squad this year, including in net where newcomer Tyler Briggs was acquired in a trade deadline deal with Lloydminster of the AJHL. Briggs led Canada West to a World Junior A Challenge gold medal and had four shutouts with the Bobcats.
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With support from Garrett Rockafellow, the Warriors will have a solid tandem in net, something they lacked in Ferster’s first year with the Warriors.
Coach’s Quote: Rylan Ferster – “We really like our group. Our returning guys are solid character guys. We addressed our biggest need in goaltending with Tyler Briggs and Garret Rockafellow. We like our depth down the middle and I really like our recruiting class.”
4. Merritt Centennials
KEY RETURNEES: F Regan Soquila (16-54-70), F Brandon Bruce (16-15-31), F Silvan Harper (11-17-28), F Brent Fletcher (9-12-21), D Richard Sabourin (4-19-23), D Dylan Chanter (2-11-13), G Tyler Steel (15-11-1, 2.60 GAA, 91.6 SV%)
ROOKIE SENSATIONS: 6’5” Kevin Lohan from Coal Spring Harbor, NY looks to be the big, stay-at-home defenceman every team covets. Last year, the 18-year-old Lohan played for the New York Apple Core in the East Coast Junior League. He’ll be joined on the Cents’ blueline by two other sizeable Junior B prospects – 6’4” Ryan Lisowsky (Mission Icebreakers) and 6’2” John Saunders (North Okanagan Knights). Up front, a deep complement of returning forwards just got deeper with the addition of 17-year-old Diego Cuglietta (13-25-38, Kamloops Storm) and 16-year-old Jeff Wight (14-23-37, N.E. Chiefs).
STRENGTHS: Head coach Luke Pierce’s squad surprised quite a few pundits and prognosticators last year with a second-place finish in the tough Interior Division. The Centennials were the only team in the BCHL to beat the juggernaut Vees at the SOEC in the regular season. Half of that impressive Cents’ team is back, led by last seasons’ leading scorer Soquila, outstanding netminder Steel, newly-named captain Fletcher, and heart-and-soul d-man Sabourin. The off-season acquisition of points-producer Derek Huisman (30-35-65) from the Chilliwack Chiefs and vastly under-rated Sebastien Pare (6-8-14) from the Langley Rivermen gives Merritt the kind of depth in the forward ranks that could be the envy of the league. Pierce has made it no secret that he wants this, the 40th anniversary of the longest continuously-run BCHL franchise, to be THE year for his team.
COACH’S QUOTE: Luke Pierce – “Our intention is to build off the success that our program had last season, and with the core of guys that we have back, we believe it is possible. We made significant moves in the off-season to better the overall offensive output of our team and believe that will be a strength of ours. With four defencemen having moved on from our program, we will need to focus on defending as a group, and helping to groom the new guys into solid BCHL players. With Tyler Steel entering his third year in the league, we believe that we have one of, if not, the best goaltenders in the league, and will lean on him to provide stability for us.”
5. Salmon Arm SilverBacks
Key Returnees: D Sean Flanagan (8-23-31), D Shane Hanna (3-21-24), D Bennett Hambrook (2-3-5), F Jeff Kennedy (11-14-25), F Travis Stephens (15-19-34).
Rookie Sensations: Before he even stepped on BCHL ice, forward Ryan Schwalbe had in his back pocket that which most of his peers are still striving for – an NCAA Division I scholarship. The Anchorage product spent the last three years at renowned prep program Shattuck St. Mary’s in Minnesota and will attend college in the land of 10,000 lakes at Mankato. Hometown boy Bryden Marsh and his 6’2” frame should get a good look up front after a pair of productive seasons with Golden of the KIJHL. Originating in the Soo and another Shattuck product, Carter Lukenda joins the fold and adds a playmaker’s eyes to the lineup.
Strengths: Usually turning a lineup over almost completely means a year of growing pains but for the SilverBacks, it represents a breath of fresh air. Head coach Troy Mick takes the reins, returning to the BCHL after six years away and brings in a new No. 1 goalie in Colin Dzijacky, who posted a 0.65 goals-against average in two 2012 RBC Cup appearances with host Humboldt. On the blueline, four returners bring stability in Hanna, Hambrook, Flanagan and Brendan Kennedy.
Coach’s Quote: Troy Mick – “We’ve brought in a whole new attitude, a whole new commitment level. I would have liked to play one or two more (exhibition games) to get an eye on the returning guys; there’s the want factor – they have to show me how badly they want it.”
6. Trail Smoke Eaters
Key Returnees: G Lyndon Stanwood (4.06 GAA, .886 SV%), F Garret McMullen (17-19-36), F Tanner Clarkson (15-11-26), F Brent Baltus (14-16-30), D Brandon Egli (2-9-11), F Adam Wheeldon (3-7-10).
Rookie Sensations: 17-year-old Trail product Scott Davidson was injured most of last season and saw little ice time with KIJHL Beaver Valley Nitehawks. But if preseason is any indicator, the skilled forward will be one to watch in the coming year. The Major Midget Kootenay Ice’s 16-year-old forward Mitchell Foyle and 17-year-old Trail native Jake Lucchini are also impressive additions, while goalie Braeden Krogfoss, 17, of Cloverdale was an MVP goalie with the Vancouver Giants in the B.C. Major Midget League last season. His size and mobility should prove a dependable counterpart to the Smokies’ starter Stanwood.
Strengths: The Smoke Eaters will be solid in goal. The lightning-quick Stanwood and six-foot rookie Krogfoss provide stability in the crease, shoring up a veteran defence. Talented returnees like McMullen, Clarkson and Baltus, along with recent acquisition Alex Holland from the Victoria Grizzlies, should give the Smokies some scoring touch up front, and former Alberni Bulldog’s Tyler Berkholtz will add size and toughness.
Coaches quote: Assistant coach Brent Heaven – “I think we’re looking pretty strong. We definitely have two strong goaltenders and we’ve got a pretty solid D-core with a lot of veterans back there, and I think our top couple lines will be able to put some pucks in the net. We’ve got a lot of good role players, so things are starting to come together pretty well.”