As the puck drops on the BCHL’s 54th season Friday, Black Press sports writers provide a glimpse into the respective teams they cover.
The Penticton Vees, ranked No. 1 by the Canadian Junior Hockey League in its pre-season rankings, have been chosen the top dog of the Interior. They will be chased by hounddogs such as the Vernon Vipers, Salmon Arm and West Kelowna.
Let the chase begin.
1. Penticton Vees
Key Returnees: F Tyson Jost (23-22-45), Demico Hannoun (23-18-41), D Gabe Bast (9-31-40), Dante Fabbro (4-29-33), G Brendan Barry (10-2-0), 2.06 goals against average, 2 SO, .912 save percentage.
Rookie Sensations: F Owen Sillinger, 17, chose to play for Penticton after receiving heavy interest from junior A teams such as the Vernon Vipers and major junior. Sillinger captained the Regina Pat Canadians to a bronze medal finish at the Telus Cup midget national championship in April. Sillinger was the Telus Cup MVP, top scorer and top forward with six goals and 17 points in seven games. In the playoffs, he had 17 points in 10 games and put up 25 goals and 64 points in 42 Saskatchewan Midget AAA Hockey League play. Sillinger is the son of former NHLer Mike Sillinger, a director of player development for the Edmonton Oilers. Easton Brodzinski comes from a hockey family with two older brothers playing in college, including Jonny, who completed a three-year career with St. Cloud and was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in 2013. Brodzinski played three years of high school hockey in Blaine, MN., and recorded 72 points in 80 games. He brings size (listed at six-foot-two, 190 pounds) and skill. D Sam Jones, 17, born in England and living in Penticton for the last five years, put up 31 points in 28 games for the Okanagan Hockey Academy Prep Red, making him the second highest scorer in the league. Jones brings strong skating ability and a hard shot. Griffin Mendel, 16, won a Canadian Sport School Hockey League Prep Division championship with the Okanagan Hockey Academy. Selected by the Kootenay Ice in the first round of the WHL bantam draft, the six-foot-two rearguard is responsible and intelligent. His skill level has caught the eye of National Collegiate Athletic Association Division 1 programs.
Strengths: Early in training camp, the Vees displayed their speed and skill. Captain Tyson Jost said while last year’s squad also possessed those abilities, he feels this group is a step ahead. Vees coach-general manager Fred Harbinson also feels they have size, which is spread through the lineup. Harbinson said they may even have a little more grit. The Vees will be led by NHL 2016 draft prospects, Jost and Fabbro. “Fabbro is a smooth skating, smart, offensive defenceman,” said NHL Central Scouting’s John Williams on NHL.com in July. “Jost is a smart, skilled forward.” Vees coach-general manager Fred Harbinson said during camp that he liked his team’s overall speed.
Coach’s quote (Harbinson): “We have always been built on the tempo that we play. I think this year is no different. We have some guys that can push back. The one other thing we saw in the preseason and hopefully it continues on, is our power-play was better. If they want to go over the line, then we will be able to hurt them on the power-play is what we’re hoping for.”
2. Salmon Arm Silverbacks
Key Returnees: F Taro Hirose (18-32-50), Carson Bolduc (19-25-44), Josh Blanchard (17-22-39), Ross Heidt (16-16-32), Colton Thibault (12-14-26) and Josh Laframboise (12-10-22). D Phil Middleton (8-17-25, 47 PIM), Damian Chrcek (1-10-11, 42 PIM). G Angus Redmond (24-22-3, 2.72 GAA, 5 SO, .910 save percentage.
Rookie Sensations: F Cam Coutre, 17, helped the Major Midget South Island Royals to the semifinals of the BCMML playoffs. Coutre racked up 17 goals and 40 points in 36 games. Coutre, who was used as a call up for the Silverbacks on eight occasions scored four points in the BCHL last year. The Silverbacks youngest player, Marcus Mitchell, 16, cracked the BCMML’s top 20 points table, racking up 22 goals and 46 points.
Strengths: The Silverbacks strength starts in goal with Angus Redmond, last year’s league leader with five shutouts. The return of 14 players to the Silverbacks should bring leadership, maturity and stability to the squad. Silverbacks’ GM Troy Mick worked hard in the off season to bolster the blue line with the addition of two sizeable and experienced defencemen in Aiden Salerno and Brett Stewart. New players in the lineup such as Cam Coutre, Marcus Mitchell, Sam De Melo and Elijiah Barriga should provide a spark of energy and enthusiasm.
Coach’s quote (West): “We have a team of 22 leaders that can compete with any team in the league. We are big, fast, strong and possess a high skill set that will translate to us being better in the corners and in front of the net where it counts.”
3. Vernon Vipers
Key Returnees: Leading scorer Liam Finlay is a dynamo who amassed 23 goals and 64 points after being dealt to Vernon from Penticton early last year. F Jagger Williamson was the youngest player on the Snakes’ roster last year and put up 8-20-28 as a 16-year-old. Forwards Colton McCarthy (10-15-25) and Riley Brandt (14-9-23) play with a wicked edge and can bring offence as well. Smooth D Mitchell Oliver (1-6-7) is the only d-man back. G Jarrod Schamerhorn (24-12-1, 2.71 GAA) was solid in 2014-14.
Rookie Sensations: Ultra-skilled centre Peter Tufto, was a finalist for Mr. Hockey in Minnesota last year after ringing up 27 goals and 63 points with St. Thomas Academy. Tufto, 18, will play alongside his clone, Finlay. RW Jimmy Lambert, 18, pocketed 21 goals and 56 points with the Major Midget Saskatoon Contacts last year. “He was part of the best line in Saskatchewan with (former NHLer) Rich Pilon’s kid, Garrett, and Kole Lind,” said Ferner. The unit racked up 222 points. Joe Sacco Jr. of Boston is a gritty 19-year-old who skates and shoots well. Sacco, whose father is an assistant coach with the NHL Bruins, supplied 22 goals with The Rivers School Red Wings of the U.S. High School league. C Joey Cipollone of Purchase, N.Y., amassed 51 points in 24 games with Harrison Select Hockey Academy and has locked up a scholarship to the University of New Hampshire Wildcats for the future. D Steven Jandric, 18, of Prince George, produced 18 goals and 54 points with the Major Midget Cariboo Cougars. He scored once in six call-ups with the Salmon Arm Silverbacks., Austin Cho (12G and 64 points with St. Andrew’s College Saints in Auora, Ont.) should excel. “Austin is a slick defender who is a smooth, calming player,” said Ferner. “He’ll be a big part of our group, no question. He has a scholarship to RPI for 2017.”
Strengths: The Vipers will start with a pair of 20-year-old net detectives with Alaskan Andrew Shortridge new to the club. Shortridge had a 2.57 average with the NAHL Aberdeen Wings in South Dakota last season and was strong in the Vipers’ exhibition series. Ferner has won two Royal Bank Cups and lost another in the final with Vernon. A 19-year pro d-man, he has also coached at the Major Junior level and is an excellent teacher who commands respect. D Bo Pellah, a BCHL all-star and NHL-rated player a few years ago, will excite fans as a 20-year-old with wheels and puck-handling magic.
Coach’s Quote (Mark Ferner): “We are structurally ahead of the curve compared to this time last year. We’re inexperienced for sure, but we have speed, skills and lots of high hockey IQs. We built this team from the goalies out so we should be solid defensively.”
4. West Kelowna Warriors
Key Returnees: F Liam Blackburn (22-51-73), F Jonathan Desbiens (27-27-54), F Kylar Hope (11-9-20), D Kristian Blumenschein (7-35-42) F/D Kyle Marino (3-15-18), D Rylan Yaremko (4-13-17), F Brett Mennear (11-14-25) and F Garret Forster (17-28-45) who is new to the Warriors but was one of the Victoria Grizzlies’ top producers last season.
New Faces: The Warriors have high hopes for D Jake Harrison (7-13-20), 16, a West Kelowna product who played with Pursuit of Excellence Academy in Kelowna last season. F Connor Sodergren (14-24-38) and F Quinn Forman (5-5-10) both come to the Warriors from Massachusetts, while F Reid Gunville (20-32-52) hails from Prince Albert, Sask. The three were effective playing on a line together in preseason. G Daniel Manella (2.08 GAA, .927 save percentage) comes to West Kelowna after strong season of Junior A hockey in Oakville, Ont., while G Forbes Polszay (2.67 GAA, .914 save percentage), from Arizona, played in three locales last season, including with the Colorado Rampage U18s.
Strengths: The Warriors have a good core of veteran leaders, led by the team’s top scorer Liam Blackburn and newly-appointed captain Kyle Marino. As has been the case with Warriors’ teams of recent years, a persistent, workmanlike approach will be the key to success. If the two new goaltenders, Manella and Polszay, live up to their advanced billing, the Warriors should be in good hands between the pipes.
Coach’s quote (Rylan Ferster): “We like the character that we have coming back. We’re fortunate to be bringing back some pretty key players, (Liam) Blackburn, (Jonathan) Desbiens, and (Kylar) Hope, and we’ve got some really good leadership with guys like our captain Kyle Marino and Rylan Yaremko.
“This (Interior) division is going to be tough again and I think you’ll see two really good teams missing the playoffs.”
5. Merritt Centennials
Key Returnees: F Gavin Gould (24-35-59), F Colin Grannary (19-20-39), F Nick Fidanza (10-7-17), F Zak Bowles (11-14-25), D Malik Kaila (1-3-4), D Cole Arcuri (1-11-12), D Tyrell Buckley (0-6-6), G Anthony Pupplo (13-13-0, 1 SO ).
Rookie Sensations: With only eight returning players from last year, new head coach and GM Joe Martin and his predecessor Luke Pierce spent the off-season looking for talent both up front and on the blueline. They found some gems in Americans Michael Faulkner (1996 birthdate), Nick Fiorentino (96), Nick Jermain (96) and Ryan Finnegan (97) along with homegrown talent Michael Regush (98), Tyler Wickman (98) and Colten Lancaster (98). Defencemen Faulkner and Fiorentino, both from New York State, cut their teeth in East Coast hockey. Faulkner starred at Brunswick Prep School in the USHS, while Fiorentino (who has committed to Army) suited up the last two seasons for the New Jersey Rockets of the EHL. Up front, Connecticut’s Jermain put up some impressive numbers with his home-state Oilers of the EHL (11-25-36 in 38 games), while Kansas-born, Quinnipiac-bound Finnegan lit it up for the Baltimore Skipjacks of the USPHL with 17 goals and 20 assists in just 23 games. Surrey’s Regush was a proven scorer with the Delta Hockey Academy last season (17-16-33); he recently committed to Cornell. Wickman had a great year on defence with the Yale Academy in Abbotsford in 2014-15, as did big-bodied netminder Lancaster with the Pursuit of Excellence in Kelowna. This year’s unheralded sleeper could be 16-year-old Tyler Ward from Kamloops.
Strengths: With 14 new faces in the lineup, it’s going to take some time for the Cents to gel. Their pre-season demonstrated that this year’s team has the firepower and speed to be competitive in the tough Interior division, while newcomers Faulkner and Fiorentino look like good additions to a blueline anchored by a healthy Kaila and Arcuri. Between the pipes, time will tell if the Pupplo-Lancaster tandem are up to the task of leading the Cents to glory in the post-Pierce era. Coach Martin will be capably assisted by new second-in-command Matt Samson, who led the North Van Wolfpack to a PIJHL title last season.
Coach’s Quote (Joe Martin): “We’re very excited to be beginning our 43rd season in the elite Interior division of the BCHL. With a new head coach in myself, with a new assistant coach in Matt, and a large number of first-year players, we have a significent challenge ahead to prove ourselves in the league this year. Our small group of veteran players will be called upon to take on much larger roles than they have had in the past. I see it as a new beginning, and a tremendous opportunity for all of us to put our stamp on the team’s future successes.”
6. Trail Smoke Eaters:
Key Returnees: F Harlan Orr (18-17-35), Max Newton (9-15-24), Kienan Scott (15-8-23), Cooper Leitch (7-8-15), Conner Brown-Maloski (8-6-14). D Jeremy Lucchini (1-12-13, 25 PIM), Evan MacEachern (3-21-24, 29 PIM), Ryan Swanson (5-19-24, 46 PIM), and Dexter McLeod (1-12-13, 35 PIM).
Rookie Sensations: Imports Nick Halloran, an 18-year-old Air Force commit from Draper, Utah and Army commit John Laurito, 19, from Johnston, RI, join the Smoke Eaters with speed to burn and a nice touch around the net. Kale Howarth, 18, from Red Deer was a surprise in camp as he cracked the lineup as a virtual unknown, and combines size and skill reminiscent of a Dallas Calvin. Hometown additions Spencer McLean of Montrose and Ross Armour from Rossland were in the top three in scoring for the Beaver Valley Nitehawks as 16-year-olds last year and will be major contributors this season.
Strengths: The Smoke Eaters’ strength is spread over its four balanced lines. With a strong work ethic, speed, quick puck movement, and an aggressive forecheck, Trail has the ability to force the play and score throughout the lineup. Also, the acquisition of highly touted netminders Bailey Macburnie, 20, from Beverly, Mass. and 6-foot-3 Linden Marshall, 17, from Victoria should provide solid and consistent goaltending.
Coaches Quote: (Nick Deschenes)
“There are some real bright spots, and some good moments, but now it’s a level playing field. We have our 22 guys, everyone has their 22 guys, we have to figure out how well we can get our 22 to play and how far we can take the group.”