Morning Star Staff
Only things missing from the warm and fuzzy Christmas pageant outside the Vernon Vipers’ dressing room Sunday were frankincense, gold and myrrh.
There was former head coach Mark Ferner running to his vehicle to fetch a gift for trainer Gord Cochrane. Graduating Vipers David Robinson, team captain a year ago, and Bryce Kakoske were giving out hugs, along with owner Duncan Wray.
Oh, and there in a manger, well, standing near the shoe rack being interviewed by the media, was dynamite Dylan Walchuk, giftwrapped as the sniper the Vipers sorely needed as they challenge for a playoff berth in the B.C. Hockey League.
Walchuk, the Vipers’ leading scorer last year, re-joined the Den after playing 19 games with the Northern Michigan University Wildcats. He compiled two goals and eight points before leaving the school which locked him up as a 16-year-old Junior B forward with the Nelson Leafs.
The pride of McBride, B.C. scored once, drew an assist and had a handful of scoring chances as the Vipers stopped the Chilliwack Chiefs 6-3 before 1,700 fans in Sunday’s matinee at Wesbild Centre.
There was a boisterous ovation when the player affectionately known as Wally, was announced as the starting centre. He pocketed 43 goals and 103 points in two previous regular seasons in Vernon.
“It was amazing,” said Walchuk, of the reception. “It was great to hear the fans be so loud there. It just felt real good. It feels like I’m back at home.”
Despite getting little sleep after leaving Marquette, the 5-foot-9 Walchuk strutted his stuff, just failing on a backhander in tight, 52 seconds into the game.
“Surprisingly, it wasn’t bad. I was pretty excited to play so I think that’s where most of my energy came from, but for the most part, I felt like I had some energy.”
Walchuk, who took second star, started on the third line with Ben Gamache and Jedd Soleway, later saw some powerplay time with Darren Nowick and Mike Zalewski, and made some noise with second liners Colton Sparrow and Adam Tambellini.
“It wasn’t too bad adjusting,” said Walchuk. “Both the lines I played on had really skilled players and I think I connected well with both the lines. We got points on both lines so it was good.”
The pesky Chiefs pulled to within 4-3 on Malcolm Gould’s 16th goal of the year, on a powerplay, with 2:52 left in the game. Just 1:19 later, Walchuk went hard to the net and converted a cross-ice pass by Soleway bar down to bring the house down. Gamache had neatly sent a long, looping clearing pass through the rafters which Soleway corralled down the right side boards.
Gamache sealed Vernon’s 16th win with a 195-footer into an empty net with three seconds left. It was his fourth goal and 11th point in seven games with the Vipers.
“We definitely mixed things up and had some guys playing all over the place,” said Viper head coach Jason Williamson. “That’s what happens when you have a deeper hockey team. You get a little added jump with Walchuk coming back.”
Williamson, whose club enters the holiday break tied with the Prince George Spruce Kings for the fourth and final Interior Conference playoff spot, can smile now as he looks down the bench and doesn’t see a whole bunch of affiliates.
“It (getting Walchuk) just gives ‘em a little added confidence, knowing that everytime we jump over the boards, we gotta a guy that can probably put the puck in the net. He’s a difference maker. You saw it tonight. He has a nose for the net for sure. He’s gonna be a game changer. He’s one of those players when he’s on the ice, good things happen.”
The Vipers also welcomed winger Colton Sparrow back from injured reserve and he had a monster game versus the third-place Chiefs, scoring twice to earn first star.
The Vernon product scored the go-ahead 3-2 goal early in the third when he lifted a backhand past Mitch Gillam, with Walchuk and Tambellini drawing assists. Sparrow skated a zillion kilometres to set up the goal, carrying the puck into the zone with some sweet moves and hammering Derek Huisman with a hit along the boards.
“Absolutely, it’s nice to get back in,” said Sparrow, who was out with a concussion. “ I had a good game Friday night against Trail and then I felt more and more confident coming in today and had another good effort. I know this was a big game for us against a rival team we’ve had troubles with so luckily it went well again. Now I get a break.”
Sparrow, who redirected Ryan Renz’s point shot in mid air for the 4-2 goal seven minutes after his first goal, fully realizes Walchuk instantly makes the Vipers better.
“I think it showed tonight that he’s gonna to liven this group up. He’s obviously a huge fan favourite and he’s a great guy in the dressing room too and a skilled player so it helps us tremendously.”
After falling behind 1-0 on Trevor Hills’ 11th of the season midway through the first, the Vipers’ fourth liners Pete McMullen and Brendan Persley went to work with Persley scoring from in front of Gillam after some nice plays by Renz and Tambellini.
McMullen made it 2-1 Vipers with 7:30 remaining in the second period with Gamache and Soleway earning helpers. Both McMullen and Persley were relentless on the forecheck and creative with the puck.
“Tonight, I actually felt really good,” said Persley, who was playing his ninth game after leaving the WHL Victoria Royals. “I got a nice sleep last night and woke up this morning, my legs were fresh, I got a good breakfast and I was ready to go. It’s always good for the bottom two lines to score some goals and chip in because the first line’s not always going to do it so other lines have to step up to.”
David Bondra, the son of retired NHLer Peter Bondra, netted the 2-2 equalizer for the Chiefs 31 seconds into the third. The Chiefs competed hard but lost to the Vipers for the first time in four meetings this year.
“I like the character of our team,” said Chiefs’ coach Harvey Smyl. “We do some good things and generally work hard. And if you work hard in this league. I think you’ll be successful. I like our group. Even today, our third game in two-and-a-half days and travel and Christmas stuff going on and all those kinds of activities, and I think our guys were still focused and gritty, tried to make a game of it.”
Smyl, whose club is two points behind the Merritt Centennials and a dozen behind the runaway Penticton Vees, knows Walchuk makes Vernon instant contenders again.
“They may have been missing a little bit of offence and he brings that spark to them. He brings energy, he’s gifted offensively. Right from the first shift of the game, he has a Grade A chance that I think Gillam robbed him on. He makes a huge difference to that club and adds a lot of depth. These guys are certainly capable of putting on a big run now, with the group they have.”
Smyl also figures the Vipers got a good one in Victoria Grizzlies’ captain and d-man Sean Robertson, who also made his Viper debut on the weekend.
“I think he’s real steady. He’s a real good player. He’s composed, doesn’t get over excited and does a great job. Even in this game, he’s just there and does a lot of good things and doesn’t make a lot of mistakes.”
Walchuk, meanwhile, comes in as the subject of rumours swirling around a September incident on the Northern Michigan campus which saw he and four teammates originally charged with theft of a bicycle.
“I’ll put it behind me. It’s not a very good thing to have on your reputation. I hope people will understand my charges were dropped, I never really did anything. It was kind of blown out of proportion. It feels good to have it behind me.”
He played under former NHL coach Walt Kyle with the Wildcats and returns faster and smarter.
“I just really enjoyed my time here years before and the situation with Northern, I liked it there and I learned a lot there. I was taught by two really knowledgeable coaches. It just wasn’t the right situation for me so I decided to come back and it feels good. It took awhile (to decide to leave) I played half a season there. I decided recently that it just wasn’t working for me.”
Walchuk will spend the break in Vernon and Kelowna with his family. Instead of making a deal to get his No. 9 jersey from Tambellini, Walchuk chose No. 92. He wore 89 in Northern Michigan.
Williamson was impressed how the Vipers responded on the weekend, improving to 3-4-1-2 in their last 10 games.
“Sometimes guys can be looking forward to Christmas break, but I thought tonight our effort was unbelievable. From the start of the game, you could just tell we had a good mind set. Chilliwack played well, but it’s definitely good for our guys to go into the break with confidence.”
SNAKE BITES: McGillis (ankle) is probable for the Dec. 29-30 home and home series with the Salmon Arm SilverBacks, while rookie D Luke Juha is out until late January after surgery on a broken hand…The Vipers outshot the Chiefs 34-26 with Kirby Halcrow taking the win…Minnesota Wild second-round draft pick Mario Lucia pulled the hat trick as the Penticton Vees shelled the visiting Powell River Kings 7-2 Saturday night. Lucia leads the leaque with 60 points. The Vees (30-3-0-2) have won 18 straight and are ranked No. 2 in the country behind the Woodstock Slammers…Mat Scarth scored 62 seconds into overtime as the Kings clipped the SilverBacks 4-3 Sunday afternoon.