With a sixpack of Vernon Vipers away at the Canada West evaluation camp, head coach Jason Williamson has had no shortage of opportunity to dabble with his lineup combinations in B.C. Hockey League exhibition play.
Their brief departure, along with injuries to Colton Sparrow, Luke Juha and Jarryd TenVaanholt, has given Viper prospects a chance to showcase themselves in larger roles, and potentially earn a permanent roster spot. And while most of the veterans came into camp prepared to battle for their starting positions, several newcomers made an impression on Williamson.
In particular, Alex Hagen, a 1992-born forward from Bronxville, NY., and Marc Hetnik, a ‘92 d-man from Brookline, Mass., have stood out.
“I didn’t know a lot about him (Hagen), but he scored some big goals in the games he’s been in and he’s definitely gotten better each and every exhibition game. Same with Marc,” said Williamson.
“Sometimes it takes them a while to get accustomed to being on the ice every day. Guys have gotten better as camp’s went along.”
Reinforcements will be back in the den as the Vipers meet the Trail Smoke Eaters in their final preseason tilt tonight (7 p.m.) at Wesbild Centre. Forwards Marcus Basara, Adam Tambellini and Aaron Hadley, along with defencemen Brett Corkey, Ryan Renz and Geoff Crisfield returned Thursday from their five-day Canada West camp in Canmore, Alta.
Williamson planned on having one extra forward and a third goalie available for tonight’s lineup. In addition to the Canada West kids, the Vipers still have defencemen Max Mowat, Hetnik, Turner Lawson and Juha, forwards Mike Zalewski, John Knisley, Darren Nowick, Pat McGillis, Hagen, Riley Hunt, Jedd Soleway and Connor Hartley, and goalies Kirby Halcrow, Danny Todosychuk and Alex Wakaluk.
Williamson will have to reduce his roster to 21 players in time for the Snakes’ regular-season opener next Friday against the Salmon Arm SilverBacks.
“We have until Sept. 23 to make that decision, and there’s also players coming available too, but I like the group we’ve got. They made us make a couple tough decisions,” said Williamson.
This will be McGillis’s third Viper camp, and as always, by the end of it, the Viper captain can’t wait for the real show to begin.
“I’ve enjoyed it. I enjoy it every year, but I’m definitely looking forward to the start of the season,” said McGillis, who billets with his uncle, Tom McGillis.
“There’s a couple guys at (Canada West) camp and a couple guys with injuries, so we haven’t really had the whole group together yet. So far, everyone’s been putting forward a good effort and we’ve been winning a couple games (Vipers are 2-1 in preseason play heading into tonight).
“Hopefully we keep building off this and we keep getting better.”
Williamson will be leaning on returnees like McGillis, Corkey, Zalewski and Nowick to not only put up points, but to also step into leadership roles. They have already exhibited their dedication by coming into camp in top shape.
“Not to single anybody out, but Mike Zalewski, added 15 pounds (of muscle) and never lost a step. If anything, he got quicker. He’s going to be tough for other teams to defend against, as I found out just now,” said Williamson, who had his hands full trying to contain the stocky forward in a 2-on-2 drill at Wednesday’s practice.
“It’s important that they come back like that in their second year. They know what it’s about and they have a goal in mind, not only to get better themselves, but to make the team better and get the team back to where it was last year.”