The Vernon Vipers have plucked another rookie sniper from the Kootenay International Hockey League, only this one’s a little closer to home.
A year after signing Dylan Walchuk, who earned the rookie scoring title last season with the Nelson Leafs, the Snakes have lured Vernon native Trevor Fitzgerald from the expansion North Okanagan Knights for the 2010-11 season.
The 17-year-old forward had a breakout year with the Knights, leading them every offensive category, posting 33 goals and 34 assists for 67 points in 49 games. That was good enough for eighth overall in league scoring, and he was second only to the Revelstoke Grizzlies’ Faiz Khan (27-41-68) in the rookie points race, trailing him by a single point.
“I’ve always been a kind of a scorer and a grinder, but this is the first year where it was pretty much all scoring,” said Fitzgerald, a Grade 11 VSS student.
“Confidence is a huge factor. With Eddie (Johnstone, former Knights’ head coach) as a coach, he had a lot of respect for me, like I did for him, and I ended up playing lots of minutes. Everything just went upwards from there.
“The biggest thing about having a good season is the start. If you’re getting ice time you’re going to be confident.”
Added Vipers’ assistant coach Jason Williamson: “Sometimes players develop at different stages. He’s just been a bit of a late bloomer, and you never know how good he could be.
“He fits in with our group well. We don’t just want a hockey player, we want good people and he has that character we’re looking for.”
The 6-foot, 185-pounder is already familiar with the Viper organization, recording one goal in three games as a call-up during the season. He has been practising with the Snakes full time since the Knights were eliminated from playoff contention.
He is also sporting the same blond mohawk the Vipers are wearing as they gear up for a Royal Bank Cup national junior A title defence.
“I think they figured it worked last year, so why not do it again?”
Getting to play for the team he grew up watching is a huge thrill for Fitzgerald. He has seen firsthand the success this franchise has had, and has idolized the great players who have worn Viper jerseys.
“Hunter Bishop, he was one of my favourites to watch,” said Fitzgerald, who was also stoked to watch his good buddy Trent Dorais play as a 16-year-old.
Even at that age, Fitzgerald said Dorais was abit of a scrapper.
“We were boxing one time in the summer and he nearly broke my nose,” he laughed.
Before joining the Knights, Fitzgerald spent the previous season with the Okanagan Rockets Midget Quad team. But he realized if he was going to make a solid transition to junior A, playing 16- and 17-year-olds wasn’t going to cut it.
“I got the feel for that league (Major Midget), but then I wanted to get the feel for playing older guys,” explained Fitzgerald, who has since developed a penchant for the physical side of junior hockey, posting 107 penalty minutes and getting into a couple scraps with the Knights.
The well-spoken teen has no regrets about signing with North Okanagan, who struggled to a 11-35-0-4 record, finishing in the Okanagan Division cellar.
“You can’t quit, no matter what. It gets hard at times, but you’ve got to think about next year.
“It’s not like it’s my first losing season,” he added laughing, referring to earlier years in minor hockey when his teams would sometimes get spanked by Kelowna.
Said Williamson: “He played on a team that struggled and he was pretty much the heart and soul.”