A grocery list of serious injuries to clutch players cost the Vernon Vipers a playoff berth a year ago.
This year, a water-pistol offence has the Vipers last in the B.C. Hockey League Interior Conference.
And while fans wonder out loud why head coach/GM Jason Williamson is still around, Viper owner Duncan Wray is standing firmly behind his former captain.
“I have full confidence in Willy,” said Wray, who bought the team from Mel Lis 21 years ago. “I know that’s usually the kiss of death, but he gets my vote. He has one year left on his contract and I expect him and I to honour that.”
The Vipers and Salmon Arm SilverBacks have managed just 82 goals, one less than the Cowichan Valley Capitals, who are the league’s lowest-scoring team.
“I’m disappointed, but I’m not disappointed in Willy,” added Wray. “I see the work he puts in. He does a great job managing the team, even better than Troy Mick did. He’s fiscally responsible and a very smart man. What people don’t realize is that the product on the ice isn’t the only thing he has to look after.
“I’m confident we can turn things around. I don’t blame Willy for where we sit. Some of the players we brought in have underachieved and we’re not scoring enough goals. As good as (Mark) Ferner was, he never scored any goals for us. We’ve lost seven games in overtime so if we win a few of those, we’re right in the middle.”
Williamson, who played on a scholarship with the Niagara University Purple Eagles in New York, hears the whispers around town.
“You’d have to be living under a rock not to hear what people are saying, but Duncan’s giving me confidence and he’s the man who has the final say. He sees how much I work. We’re not out of this (playoff race).”
Williamson is seeking an experienced defenceman since the Snakes are down to six.
“I’m trying to get a 19-year-old experienced guy,” he said. “I’d like a guy who’s hard to play against, so a shutdown guy who can make a good first pass. We’ll see what’s out there (before the Jan. 10 carding deadline). I’m open to change. We could make some big changes. I’m hoping to make this hockey team better.”
Third-year veteran Colton Sparrow figures Williamson will make some serious roster moves.
“Like Willy said, the break is well needed,” said Sparrow, a Vernon minor hockey product. “We have to go home, rest and then regroup. There has to be, and I think there will be, changes made before the deadline. I don’t know if Willy has plans to make some, but we’ve made enough small changes, we need to make some big changes.”
The Vipers are 11-16-0-7 and just four points back of the Trail Smoke Eaters and West Kelowna Warriors. They are five points back of the third-place Salmon Arm SilverBacks.
The top-four teams make the playoffs and Vernon has 22 games left after the break, starting with a road game, Friday, Jan. 4, at Salmon Arm.
Vernon returns to regular practices Jan. 2 and 3 with a morning skate before their game at the Shaw Centre.
The Vipers host the Warriors Saturday, Jan. 5 and the Smokies on Wednesday, Jan. 9 and the Powell River Kings on Friday, Jan. 11 before starting a three-game road trek Jan. 18 in Nanaimo versus the Clippers.
Meanwhile, Vernon’s Tyler Steel recorded 29 saves for first star as the Merritt Centennials iced the Vipers 5-0 Saturday night before 650 fans at the Nicola Valley Arena.
Dane Birks scored with 27 seconds left in the first period and the Cents then exploded for three third-period snipes in 1:36 before Jeff Wight completed the offence with 64 seconds remaining.
Regan Soquila, Brent Fletcher and Silvan Harper had the other goals as the Cents improved to 19-11-1-1, good for second place in the Interior Division.
Danny Todosychuk made 39 saves for the Vipers.
“The first two periods, I thought went pretty well,” said Sparrow. “We were short on the back end and we missed Corks (captain Brett Corkey), but the ice wasn’t titled at all. We had our chances and so did they. We had some costly turnovers and breakdowns in the third and they scored four quick ones.”
Said Williamson: “The effort was way better than the Friday night game. We had some unfortunate circumstances playing with four dee and my affiliates injured.”
BCHL Player of the Week was Soquila, who collected six points to lead all pointgetters while helping the Cents to four of a possible six points. The Maple Ridge native scored a hat trick, including the winner, and two helpers, in a 6-1 road win over Vernon. He followed with another tally the next night at home.
Vernon’s Alex Gillies got his 12th goal of the season as the host SilverBacks iced the Warriors 4-2 Saturday night.
West Kelowna and Penticton are the only Interior teams seeing action before 2013. They begin a home and home series tonight at the South Okanagan Events Centre.