Twins Connor and Kellen Jones are trying to hold court with some of the best forward prospects in the NHL. Defenceman Kyle Bigos’ job is to shut them all down.
Neither is an easy assignment, but the three Vernon Viper alumni wouldn’t trade this thrill ride for box seats at the Stanley Cup finals. , which ends Saturday with a mini 3-on-3 tournament.
“Last year was pretty exciting, just with Kellen getting drafted (seventh round, 202nd overall) and being out there with (Taylor) Hall and (Jordan) Eberle and those types of players.
“I think we’re still in disbelief that we’re here, but this year we’re trying to make an impact and be some of the best players out there,” said Connor, a Montrose, B.C. native.
The camp mainly comprises the Oilers’ younger prospects from the junior, college and AHL level, the top name being Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, selected first overall by the Oilers in last month’s NHL Entry Draft.
“He’s pretty down-to-earth; he doesn’t act like a No. 1 pick. He’s just happy to be here,” said Connor, of RNH’s grounded demeanour.
Added Kellen: “Everything is top of the line. They treat you like you’re a pro already; that’s a great part of it.
“Everyone has the same feeling – thrilled to have this chance and we want to make the most of this opportunity. We just want to make sure we’re developing. We both know what it takes and we just work as hard as we can.”
For Bigos, a fourth-round draft selection (99th overall in 2009), the journey to becoming an elite prospect hasn’t been without its challenges. He has basically lived away from his home in Upland, Calif. since he was 15, heading to the Notre Dame Hounds program in Wilcox, Sask. before coming to the Vipers.
He also lost his father, Walter Bigos, a former draft pick of the Boston Red Sox, last month to a heart attack.
“I went through some hard times, but it’s worth it. I thank my family so much for helping me make that sacrifice,” said Bigos, a fan favourite during his time in Vernon.
The 22-year-old blueliner added it has been great reconnecting with the twins in Edmonton.
“I miss them so much. It’s really a joy to be around them. We had a skills contest (Wednesday) and they blew by some guys, which was good to see,” said Bigos, who got his first introduction to yoga this week at Oiler camp.
“I felt tons better after that. I’m definitely going to continue that at home.”
A gentle giant until he steps on the ice, Bigos helped the NCAA Division 1 Merrimack Warriors to an impressive 16-8-3 record (25-10-4 overall) in his sophomore year, good enough for fourth in the Hockey East conference.
He skated alongside former Viper Mike Collins, who Bigos says is starting to get a handle on NCAA hockey. Collins finished as Merrimack’s top freshman with 14-16-30 in 36 games.
“He had a bit of a slow start, but the second half he just exploded onto the scene. It was just awesome watching him,” smile Bigos, who collected 2-6-8 and 45 penalty minutes in 32 games, and was one of 10 Warriors named to the Hockey East All-Academic team.
After helping the Vipers win back-to-back Royal Bank Cup titles, the twins were brought back to earth somewhat in their freshman season with the Division Quinnipiac Bobcats, who went 6-9-7 in ECAC conference play (16-15-8 overall).
“It was an eye-opener after being in Vernon for a while. It was a little frustrating to be at the lower part of the league. We don’t want to get used to losing, so next year we’re looking to change and turn things around,” said Connor, who finished second in team scoring (9-15-24) behind captain and former Viper Scott Zurevinski.
Kellen, who ranked fourth with 8-14-22, credits Zurevinski for making their adjustment to college hockey a good one.
“He’s just awesome. He’s great to everyone, no matter who you are. He’ll also tell you how it is. If you’re not doing well, he’ll tell you,” said Kellen.