Vernon Vipers’ head coach/GM Jason Williamson had a coaching vacancy that needed filling. He didn’t have to look far to find the right candidate.
Williamson plucked Kris Mallette from the North Okanagan Junior B Knights as his associate coach for the coming B.C. Hockey League season.
Mallette, a former enforcer with the WHL Kelowna Rockets, has shown himself worthy of the promotion through his work with the Knights. Over two seasons as head coach, he guided North Okanagan to a 69-30-2-3 record, culminating in an appearance in the league final against the Castlegar Rebels in late March. He was named KIJHL Coach of the Year.
Williamson had the chance to watch a couple Knights’ games last season, and he was impressed with Mallette’s style – firm, but fair.
“That’s how you have to be nowadays,” said Williamson. “You need to make sure these kids are held accountable and that they just can’t have their way out there.”
Between Williamson, Mallette and returning assistant coach Dave Robinson, the Vipers have one of the toughest coaching staffs in junior hockey. Williamson hopes to have a little of that rub off on his players.
“We played against each other in the Central League the one year I played pro down there in Shreveport (Mudbugs),” said Williamson. “He was in Laredo (Bucks). I’m surprised we didn’t tangle.
“We want to be owly, and we want to be a real tough team to play against. We want to bring some of our characteristics out in our team.”
Mallette, a Philadelphia Flyers’ draft who carved out a 10-year career as a minor pro defenceman, will oversee the Vipers’ blueline. He fills the hole left by assistant coach Jason (JR) Read, who was unable to work with the Vipers full-time due to other commitments.
With Vernon hosting the RBC Cup national championships, the 32-year-old Williamson felt it necessary to enlist another experienced coach who could focus solely on the team. As an associate, he will also have a hand in trades, cuts and other hockey operations.
Mallette, 34, has watched the Vipers struggle the past two seasons, missing the playoffs both years. He said to do so this season would be catastrophic.
“You don’t want to be the Saskatoon Blades (2013 MasterCard Memorial Cup hosts),” said Mallette. “You don’t want to be sitting around for 50-odd days waiting for the RBC to start.
“You want to put a team together that’s playing in the playoffs and doing it the right way.”
Mallette noted that when Williamson traded star forwards Adam Tambellini and Aaron Hadley at the BCHL carding deadline, there was a shakeup in the team’s attitude.
“The team had success because the accountability was there,” said Mallette. “If you weren’t playing the way Jason wanted you to play, you were going to sit on the bench.
“With the talent we’ve got coming in, on any given night, your so-called fourth line could be playing first-line minutes and we’d still be doing very, very well.”
Williamson said part of the Vipers’ year-end transformation was due in part to his ability to put down his stamp as head coach.
“I came from being an assistant, and some of those guys still looked at me like that,” said Williamson. “We saw the team change a lot towards the end and that’s just a lot of me holding them accountable.”
Combining returnees and other players coming to the Viper den via trades and signings, Vernon has 25 bodies, plus main camp tryouts, auditioning for roster spots.
Mallette said it will be crucial to find the right mix of talent and character.
“The whole culture in the room can sway a team either way,” he said. “Not necessarily are we going to take the best players because that doesn’t necessarily make the best team.”
Along with Knights’ forward Matty Saharchuk, who signed with Vernon last week, Mallette has previously worked with returning forwards Logan Mick and TJ Dumonceaux.
The Viper’ main camp begins Monday, Aug. 19.