Black Press newspaper writers from around the province have submitted their annual predictions for the Interior Conference in 2011-12. I know that Merritt Herald sports reporter Ian Webster had some input into the predictions, especially when it comes to the Cents, but great to see that the writers project Merritt to take the fourth and final playoff spot in the Conference.
Here’s the article, with the Centennials section in bold:
Black Press writers
Sticks, which used to cost 50 cents apiece, now go for $2,000 a dozen. Coaches, who used to hold down normal full-time jobs and get paid gas money by team owners, now earn a decent living.
The arenas are luxurious in several centres and the attendance has risen higher than the HST.
Entering its 50th year, the B.C. Hockey League is alive and well and getting stronger by the minute. Out are the Quesnel Millionaires. In are the Chilliwack Chiefs, whose head coach Harvey Smyl joins Kent Lewis of the Powell River Kings as the league’s longest-serving bench bosses.
Black Press writers from around the Interior Conference have compiled previews for the 50th campaign. Here’s how the eight teams should finish come early spring:
1. VERNON VIPERS
Key Returnees: F Patrick McGillis (13-12-25), F Mike Zalewski (12-17-29), F John Knisley (10-25-35), D Brett Corkey (1-23-24), G Kirby Halcrow (3.03 goals against average, .901 save percentage).
Rookie Sensations: As the son of Edmonton Oilers’ GM Steve Tambellini and brother of former Vancouver Canuck Jeff, hockey runs in Adam Tambellini’s bloodlines. The lanky forward pocketed 54 points and 113 penalty minutes in 34 games last season with Edmonton’s South Side Athletic Club. Marc Hetnik Jr. will have a shot at earning top-four minutes on the Viper blueline this season. Hetnik comes from the same Catholic Memorial high school program that brought Mike Collins and Garrett Noonan to the Viper den. Geoff Crisfield, a Calgary native, was a highly sought after defence prospect before he signed with Vernon in the spring. Riley Hunt, a small but feisty playmaking forward, will be Vernon’s mandatory 16-year-old.
Strengths: With seven of their 11 returning players being forwards, Vernon’s strength will be up front. This is an organization that has reached the national finals three straight years, meaning the vets know what it takes to succeed and, in turn, they can teach their talented crop of newcomers what it takes to be one of the top junior A clubs in Canada. First-year head coach Jason Williamson, a former Viper captain, was mentored by one of the best in Mark Ferner.
Coach’s Quote: Williamson: “We definitely have some good speed. We’re going to try to push the pace on some teams and be real aggressive on the forecheck. All our D are fairly mobile, so we’ve got a good corps back there. When we turn pucks over, we’re going to get it and go with some pace.”
2. PENTICTON VEES
Key Returnees: F Logan Johnston (11-21-32), F Joey Benik (30-26-56), F Curtis Loik (10-16-26) D Troy Stecher (5-15-20).
New Acquisitions: F Travis St. Denis (27-27-54) acquired through trade, G Michael Garteig (36-8-3, seven shutouts, 1.69 GAA, .934 save percentage) acquired through trade.
Rookie Sensations: Minnesota Wild draft pick Mario Lucia scored 30 goals in 27 games with Wayzata High School and added 24 assists. The son of Minnesota Golden Gophers coach Don Lucia, Marco was chosen 60th overall in the 2011 NHL Draft. Mike Reilly, featured in the Prospects report in The Hockey News on Sept. 19, was drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the fourth round in the 2011 draft. In 2010-11, Reilly led Shattuck’s St. Mary’s defence in scoring with 13 goals and 43 points and helped them capture the Under-18 Tier 1 National Championship. Steven Fogarty, drafted by the New York Rangers in the 2011 NHL Draft, racked up 23 goals and 40 points in 24 games with the Edina Hornets in Minnesota. Local Cody DePourcq, 16, scored 23 goals and 47 points in 43 games with the Okanagan Hockey Academy. Grant Nicholson played with OHA’s Penticton Lakers and brought a physical presence while pocketing 12 goals and 21 points.
Strengths: Speed and size will be the key ingredient for the Vees success. Coach Fred Harbinson has assembled a big team that will move the puck up and down the ice and use its quickness to create offence.
Coach’s quote: Harbinson: “You can say a lot of things about our team. I don’t think you’re going to say we’re boring. We have a fun group to watch. We need people to come out and support the team. Our guys are going to play hard for them.”
3. WESTSIDE WARRIORS
Key Returnees: F Tyler Krause (11-31-42), F Dru Morrison (14-17-31), F Brett McKinnon (10-13-23), D Michael King (5-18-23), D Izaak Berglund (2-12-14), D Peter MacIntosh (0-11-11), D Brayden Sherbinin (4-8-12).
New Acquisition: Winger Richard Vanderhoek, 20, will be looked upon to provide offence and leadership. The Langley native was acquired from Surrey in the off-season and is coming off a 71-point season (26-45-71) last year with the Eagles. He spent some time mid-season with the WHL Vancouver Giants.
Rookie Sensations: A pair of Warriors rookies from the B.C. Major Midget League will look to make the jump to junior. Forward Seb Lloyd had 17 goals and 37 assists in 30 games with the Cariboo Cougars in the BCMML while D Ben Betker had 13 points with the Kootenay Ice.
Strengths: The Warriors’ strength will likely come from the blueline with its top four returning blueliners, including Berglund, who was named the Warriors captain. New coach Rylan Ferster is preaching defence and work ethic as he takes over from the departed Darren Yopyk.
Coach’s Quote: “I think we’re going to be a good defensive team,” said Ferster. “Guys are buying into that which is good. I don’t think we’re going to be a run-and-gun team. We’re going to have to be good defensively and have a really good work ethic.”
4. MERRITT CENTENNIALS
Key Returnees: F Regan Soquila (20-25-45), F Evan Stack (13-19-32), F Chad Brears (4-17-21), F Jacob Reichert (7-11-18), D Brandon Pfeil (6-10-16), D Billy Marshall (4-12-16), D Reece Willcox (5-9-14), G Lino Chimienti (3.11 GAA), G Tyler Steel (3.49 GAA). The Cents start the season with no fewer than 15 returning veterans from a team that, despite finishing sixth out of eight teams in the Interior, had an impressive 5-1-0 record against the Westside Warriors and evenly split their six games with the league champion Vipers.
Rookie Sensations: 18-year-old Brandon Bruce was a late arrival at Cents’ training camp, but the former Swift Current Bronco (WHL) has made an immediate impact. The feisty five-foot-10 centre plays with an edge, and has a ton of talent to back up his style. Local player Payton Schaefer, 18, has cracked the lineup after putting up some pretty respectable numbers last season with the Kamloops Storm (KIJHL). On the back end, look for Texan Ross Mancuso (KIJHL champion Osoyoos Coyotes), Tyler Martin (NE Chiefs major midget) and 16-year-old Dylan Chanter (POE midget prep) to round out a very experienced defensive corps.
Strengths: Head coach and GM Luke Pierce begins his second full season behind the bench – a year older and undoubtedly a year wiser. His new assistant, Joe Martin, brings a wealth of experience to the Cents’ coaching staff, most recently as head coach and GM of the Creston Valley Thunder Cats (KIJHL). In Chimenti and Steel, the Cents have two proven netminders with a full BCHL season behind them. Both sparkled through the pre-season, where Merritt went 5-1 and allowed just 12 goals. Stack, Soquila and Bruce, if teamed up together, could be one of the most potent forward lines in the league. Reichert has already shown signs in the early going that he’s ready for a banner sophomore year. A sleeper could be hard-working, second-year winger Dustin Lebrun, who notched a natural hat trick, all in the third period, in a 3-1 win over Simon Fraser University. The Cents’ returnees on the blueline – Pfeil, Marshall, Willcox and Richard Sabourin – will be the keys to a successful season.
Coach’s Quote: Luke Pierce: “This is a group that will further expand on the core values of Centennials’ hockey. We will work as a group both to defend and create offence using the work ethic we have become recognized for. We will challenge our large core of veterans to continue striving to improve on their previous seasons. Our mix of new additions will provide some additional energy and offensive punch to our lineup.”
5. SALMON ARM SILVERBACKS
Key Returnees: F Brett Knowles (30-28-58), Morgan Zulinick (12-17-29), Bryce Gervais (29-22-51), Devin Muller (12-16-28), D James Friedel (1-5-6)
Rookie Sensations: Defenceman Brendan Kennedy, who played last season with Okanagan Hockey Academy, and forward Kyle Oleniuk of Moose Jaw (Saskatchewan Midget AAA) were rookie standouts in Salmon Arm’s main camp and look poised to earn quality minutes in the regular season. Vernon minor hockey product Alex Gillies, the SilverBacks’ 16-year-old, has the size and grit to handle the more physical junior style.
Strengths: The SilverBacks boast a solid top-six forward corps that can put the puck in the net at any given time. With just one returning d-man (Friedel), Salmon Arm head coach/GM Colin O’Hara acquired veteran blueliners Klay Kachur (Powell River), Bennett Hambrook (Prince George/Vernon), Matt Brown (AJHL Drumheller Dragons) and Sean Flannagan (SJHL Kindersley Dragons) in the offseason.
Coach’s Quote: “We’ve acquired some veteran defencemen to shore up our back end and we feel our six that will play on a nightly basis are as good as any in the league. Kurt (Williams, starting netminder) is prepared to step it up in and and put it on the line every night this year. The strength is our dee corps, but we also have some dynamic game-breakers up front.”
6. Prince George Spruce Kings
Key Returnees: F Jujhar Khaira (10-32-42), F Connor Tiechko (13-13-26), F Jeff Earnest (6-16-22), D Ben Woodley (6-11-17), G Kirk Thompson (3.91 GAA, 88.76 save percentage).
Rookie Sensations: On a team that also has triplets, the McHaffie twins (Scott and Spencer) garnered attention during the Spruce Kings spring prospect camp. The 1994-born forwards from Surrey committed to the Spruce Kings after winning a provincial Midget Tier 1 title with the Surrey Thunder. At 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, 18-year-old Lethbridge product Cody Bardock will bring size to the blueline, while 16-year-old Kitimat native Michael Klonarakis joins the team after skating for the highly respected Pursuit of Excellence hockey academy in Kelowna. An 18-year-old Prince George product who skated for the Prince George-based Cariboo Cougars, G Marcus Beesley hopes to challenge Kirk Thompson for playing time.
Strengths: Once Dave Dupas took over head coaching duties from Ed Dempsey last November, the Spruce Kings turned their focus to learning a more disciplined defensive game. While they ultimately missed the playoffs, the less entertaining brand helped the team climb back to respectability by the end of the season. The Spruce Kings may not impress anybody with highlight-reel goals, but they won’t get pushed around easily either, with the likes of Woodley (6-foot-6) and D Trevor Esau (6-foot-4, 110 penalty minutes) on their back end. If there’s one offensive game-breaker on the Spruce Kings, it’s Khaira, who’s committed to play NCAA Division 1 at Michigan Tech for the 2012-13. The Fitzgerald triplets (Gerry, Leo and Myles), who joined the team from the Nanaimo Clippers in an offseason deal, will be fun to watch.
Coach’s Quote: Dupas: “We can’t throw our hands in the air and say ‘Now that Quesnel isn’t here, we’re finished’, because we’re absolutely not. We got a bunch of guys in here that we believe are going to compete hard for the Spruce Kings and want to win games. The difficulty is in the road trips and stuff like that, but you just have to do it. It’s what it is at this point and we’ll spend a lot of time on the bus. We’ll have to make sure that we’re eating properly, we’re getting a lot of rest and that’ll take care of itself.”
7. CHILLIWACK CHIEFS
Key Returnees: F Spencer Graboski (15-21-36), Malcolm Gould (14-17-31), Derek Huisman (14-14-28), Chris Blessing (10-16-26), D Ty Miller (4-15-19), Stefan Gonzales (1-8-9)
Rookie Sensations: Goaltender Mitch Gillam will be a busy man in the Chilliwack goal crease. The Peterborough native was drafted by the OHL’s Peterborough Petes, but spent last season playing at Berkshire School in Sheffield, Mass. Chiefs’ bench boss Harvey Smyl is noted for picking one goaltender and running with him, and Gillam should get the lion’s share of starts. Forward David Bondra is the son of ex-NHLer Peter Bondra, who scored 503 goals in 1081 big league games. David spent last season with the USHL’s Chicago Steel, popping four goals and nine points in 58 games. Now 18 years old, he could become a top-sixer for Chilliwack.
Strengths: A Smyl team’s work ethic will always be its strength, but until this team plays some meaningful games, it’s hard to say what else they may offer. Last season, as the Quesnel Millionaires, they struggled to score and struggled defensively en-route to a 13-38-3-6 record and first round playoff exit. Gillam may be a solution in goal, but there are still far more questions than answers.
Coach’s Quote: Smyl: “This is a whole new scenario with a whole new group of guys, whole new coaching staff, new city and new building. Everything is new to them and it’s going to take some time for them to become a team, know what the coaches want and feel comfortable here.”
8. TRAIL SMOKE EATERS
Key Returnees: F Eric Cooper (11-15-26), F Logan Proux (3-8-11), F Adam Boytnick (3-12-15), Rajan Sidhu (1-22-23), G Matt Larose (2.67 GAA, 92.4 save percentage).
Rookie Sensations: Vancouver Chiefs F Matthew Bissett finished fourth in scoring in the Major Midget League last year; 16-year-old forward Luke Bertolucci netted a point a game for the Major Midget Kootenay Ice (15-19-34) as well as won a gold medal at the Canada Winter Games with Team B.Ç. and Dallas Calvin played for the KIJHL Beaver Valley Nitehawks, counting 40 points in 40 games as a 16-year-old. The 6-foot-3 forward will provide speed and size up front. Other rookie notables include D Brandon Egli, F Brandon Long and D Daniel Delbianco, all from Major Midget.
Strengths: The Smoke Eaters will be a young team with approximately 12 rookies. Depending on how they develop, offence may be a concern but the team should be strong defensively with goalie Matt Larose backstopping a solid defensive core of veterans led by Sidhu, Clayton McEwan and recent acquisition Nicholas Wong from Cowichan Valley.
Coaches Quote: Bill Birks: “We’re going to be a hard-working, lunch-bucket type team, a good mix of solid veterans with some high-end kids that will take a bit to get into it but they’re progressing very nicely.”