Play his final six games as a Vernon Viper and head to Alaska for college hockey with a Royal Bank Cup ring on his finger.
It’s a mid-May bucket list that forward Colton Sparrow, the heart and soul of the Vipers, is determined to pull off.
The 20-year-old winger, a work of art on the art of work, scored three times and used his unique shot-blocking style on a few clutch penalty kills as the Vipers built up a 5-0 lead and hung on for a 6-4 win over the Yorkton Terriers in Royal Bank Cup preliminary action Monday night before 2,500 noisy fans at Kal Tire Place.
Sparrow was a rock star on the penalty kill and finished his checks all over the rink as the Vipers improved to 1-1 in the five-team national Junior A hockey championships. Vernon meets the West No. 2 seeded Dauphin Kings of Manitoba Tuesday night. Yorkton dropped to 0-2.
“It’s my hometown and also getting a crack at this tournament three, four years back, and coming short, it still to this day, stings,” said Sparrow, named Game MVP in Vernon’s opening 3-2 loss Saturday night to the Carleton Place Canadians of Ottawa. “I don’t want that feeling again and I’m gonna do everything I can to make sure it’s gold this year.”
Sparrow saluted his parents, Jed and Christine, in Section A, after he opened the Viper scoring for the second straight game. He raised his stick in thanks to the fans moments after his sweet empty-netter, with 43 seconds remaining.
Viper head coach Jason Williamson went with seven defenceman and 11 forwards with Sparrow’s regular linemate, Brendan Persely, on injured reserve. Sparrow and Brett Mulcahy went out with a number of different right wingers. D-man Kenny Citron returned to the lineup after missing the entire BCHL final series.
“Sparrow’s been a guy who I’ve leaned on all year long,” said Williamson. “He’s obviously brought his A game in the playoffs. There are certain players that you know are going to rise above everything and he was a guy, once we set off in the playoffs, we knew he’d he better, playing with that energy and jam he has. I’ve just gotta get him on the ice as much as I can because when he’s on the ice, good things happen. This probably matters more to him than anyone in that locker room, or anyone in this tournament.”
Viper centre Michael McNicholas, who posted the eventual winner and added an assist, loves seeing the guy they call ‘Spares’ ruling the playoffs.
“Unbelievable,” said McNicholas. “He’s been our best player all playoffs and he’s keeping that going. It’s so nice to see that from a guy like him, a hometown kid. He’s been great.”
Vernon exploded for three goals in 41 seconds, early in the second period, with Game MVP Liam Coughlin connecting on the powerplay to ignite the fireworks 51 seconds into the session. Mulcahy scored 17 seconds later and Sparrow made it 4-0 just 24 seconds later.
McNicholas converted from the mid-slot, 2:16 later, for Vernon’s third straight even-strength goal, chasing Yorkton starter Kale Thompson, who was replaced by Nanaimo product Riley Medves. Thompson recorded the saves of the night with seconds left in the first, stoning Dexter Dancs from in close and then somehow getting his glove on Riley Gunther’s rebound attempt.
Sparrow opened the Snakes’ offence midway through the first period on a high wrister from the mid-slot after a sweet feed by Mulcahy on the left wall.
Yorkton’s leading playoff sniper, Brett Boehm, finally solved Viper goalie Austin Smith, with 4:28 left in the second period on a wrister that deflected off a Viper in front. It was Boehm’s first of the tournament, and 20th of the post-season. He took a marvellous stretch pass from d-man Brady Norris shortly after, but was angled off nicely by d-man Josh Bryan on the partial breakaway.
Dylan Johnson of the Terriers connected 23 seconds into a Coughlin tripping penalty early in the third, while four minutes later, Tanner Lishchynsky buried a feed from ex-Viper Riley Hunt, with Michael Statchuk off for high sticking.
Williamson, sensing another collapse witnessed by fans in both home games against the Coquitlam Express in the BCHL final series, called a timeout to remind his troops to relax.
That strategy worked for two minutes. Tyson Enzie went top shelf, on a pass from Kelowna’s Josh Ellis, to pull the Saskatchewan league and West champions within a snipe.
With Medves on the bench for a sixth attacker and the Terriers pressing, Sparrow took the puck to the Yorkton blueline, used a gorgeous toe drag to elude defenceman Devon McMullen along the boards, skated in and deposited the insurance tally.
“Our energy kind of got snuffed out,” said Sparrow, on the third-period collapse. “We have to get better at closing games out. They got one and we started to panic. They got two and things were kind of hairy on the bench. We kind of got our composure back for a few shifts and got it done.”
Added Williamson: “Our panic mode set in again, and at times, seemed to be going the other way rather than running down. It’s tough because our group’s been reeling. They’ve lost five in a row if you go back to that Coquitlam series, and I think that panic set in again. ‘Oh, no, here it comes again.’ But we hung on and we won and there are things to learn and positives to take from it. Get on the back of Colton Sparrow, obviously.”
Yorkton head coach Trent Cassan will take an encouraging third period and use it for motivation as the Terriers, who struggled out of the gate at the Western Canada Cup before winning the title last week in Dauphin, meet the Canadians in a Wednesday matinee.
“It was a real good push-back by our guys and we didn’t quit. You just can’t put yourself in a situation like that against the teams that are here and expect to come back from five. It was close, but that four minutes, you just can’t let games get away from you like that.”
McMullen, a smooth-skating 20-year-old captain, says the Terriers are not holding any pity parties after two losses. He said they went 1-1 to start the Westerns but could have easily been 0-2.
“I have full faith that we’re gonna come back in this tournament and play some good hockey and get to 2-2 or 1-3 and find a way to get in the playoffs. We all have faith in each another in our room. No one’s getting too low. We’re just gonna keep our heads high and keep going.”
Vernon lost captain/d-men Ryan Renz with 8:52 left in the second period for a hit to McMullen’s head deep in the Terriers’ zone.
Hunt, a Revelstoke product who started the season playing Junior B in Summerland, said the Terriers started getting traffic in front of Smith for success in the final 20 minutes.
“We got ourselves in trouble early in the second, but I’m proud of the guys,” said Hunt, headed to Harvard in 2015. “We pushed back pretty hard; it wasn’t enough but if we carry that over into the next game, we’ll be fine.
He wasn’t surprised at anything he saw from the Vipers, who finished seventh overall in the BCHL, at 30-18-4-6.
“It was what we expected. They’re a good hockey team and if you give them odd-man rushes like we did for that five-minute period, they’re gonna capitalize. I thought we outplayed them in the third period, but you have to play a full 60 minutes to beat a team like that.”
Williamson has seen Dauphin play four times in the last two weeks so has a good idea what the Vipers will face Tuesday night.
“They have some really good high-octane skill up front and, obviously (goalie Michael) Staliadis has been very good them in this tournament. They’ve won two and they’re a very good hockey team. I’m sure our guys will remember him (Stiliadis) from practice. When goalies get hot, they can be difference-makers so we’ve gotta get to him early.”
Stiliadis, an Ontario product, is with his fifth Junior team. He was awesome in the Manitoba playoffs before getting hurt in the Westerns. He was 0-2 during a brief stint with the Vipers this season when Smith was on injured reserve.
The Vipers finish preliminary play Thursday night against the Toronto Lakeshore Patriots (1-1).