Sports

BCHL Interior Division preview

It’s season 52 in the B.C. Hockey League with 16 teams hoping to join the host Vernon Vipers in the Royal Bank Cup next May at Kal Tire Place.

The Vipers will host the Canadian Junior A championships but before they get there, there appears to be parity in the Interior Division for 2013-14 with four out of six teams to make the playoffs

Here's a look at each team in the division in the order they finished last season.

1. PENTICTON VEES

Key Returnees: F Brad McClure (27-19-46) named captain during the summer, F Ryan Gropp (12-19-31) named Interior Conference Rookie of the Year, F Cody DePourcq (13-8-21), F Travis Blanleil (6-6-12), F Cam Amantea (7-12-19).

Rookie Sensations: Alexandre Coulombe, 18, joins the Vees after playing prep hockey with the Stanstead College Spartans where he amassed eight goals and 34 points in 62 games. The 6-foot-4 d-man was ranked 68th by NHL Central Scouting prior to the 2013 entry draft. He also comes with a commitment to the University of Vermont in Hockey East. Jack Ramsey, the son of former NHL defenceman Mike Ramsey, collected nine goals and 27 points in 24 games with the Minnetonka High School Skippers. The 6-foot-2 power forward brings great vision and hockey sense and is committed to the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers. Anthony Conti, 17, helped guide the Vancouver Northwest Giants to their fifth consecutive B.C. Major Midget League championship. The Vancouver resident pocketed 18 goals and 48 points in 35 games. Conti, who has played 17 games in the BCHL with Coquitlam and Trail as an affiliate player, is known for his hard-nosed, relentless style of play.

Strengths: The Vees coaching staff believe they have done a good job building from the back end out. Coach Fred Harbinson likes the experience of his goalies with 20-year-old Olivier Mantha, who just committed to the University of Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves, and 18-year-old Hunter Miska. The defence is made up of a group with two to three years of junior A experience joined by rookies Coulombe and Jarod Hilderman. The forwards all possess strong skating ability and bring something to the table.

Coach’s quote (Harbinson): “You always know you have a good team when it’s hard to pick your captains (he just added defenceman Chris Rygus to the mix with McClure and assistant captain Blanleil). We have got so many guys that can wear letters on this team. Guys that have been captains on other teams in the past. That to me is what’s going to make this team go.”

2. WEST KELOWNA WARRIORS

Key Returnees: F Seb Lloyd (24-42-66), F Ambrose Firkus (11-9-20), F David Pope (17-22-39, drafted by Detroit), F Matt Anholt (9-22-31), D Adam Plant (5-23-28).

Rookie Sensations: F Liam Blackburn comes from Prince George where last season he was the second-leading BCMML scorer (35-50-85) with the Cariboo Cougars. West Kelowna’s F Brett Mennear, garnered 24-31-55 in 38 games with the major midget Okanagan Rockets. Boston native Carl Hesler is a 19-year-old rookie out of prep school south of the border and is already committed to Dartmouth University Big Green for the 2014-15 season.

Strengths: With the likes of Lloyd, Firkus and Pope all returning up front, the Warriors will have a skilled offensive attack and will rely on youth and newcomers to round out the forward lines. On defence, Plant returns after last season playing on the top pairing while 20-year-old Jaden Schmeisser, acquired in an off-season trade, will bring a veteran presence after playing the last two seasons in Victoria.

Coaches quote (Rylan Ferster, who signed a five-year extension in the off season): “I’m optimistic about the season. We have more new faces than we had last year so it will take some time to get a read on the team. It’s going to be a tough division. There are going to be two really good teams that don’t make the playoffs. Our goal is to make the playoffs and go from there.”

3. MERRITT CENTENNIALS

Key Returnees: F Sebastien Paré (17-27-44), F Scott Patterson (11-14-25), F Jeff Wight (13-10-23), D Tyler Martin (6-17-23), D Dane Birks (5-15-20), F James Neil (7-13-20, acquired from the Powell River Kings), D Shane Poulsen (7-15-22, acquired from the Smokies)

Rookie Sensations: Head coach Luke Pierce spent the summer looking specifically for players who could provide more offence. In the likes of Rhett Willcox (96), Gavin Gould (96) and Adam Tracey (95), the Cents may have just what the doctor ordered. Willcox, the younger brother of former Centennial and Philadelphia Flyer’s 2012 draft pick Reese Willcox, netted 21 goals and 52 points in 40 games last season with the Valley West Hawks of the BCMML. Gould, whose older brother, Malcolm, played three seasons in the BCHL (2009-2012) with Quesnel and Chilliwack and is currently attending Michigan Tech, 8-18-26 in just 24 games last season with the Vancouver NW Giants (BCMML).

Strengths: The Cents, who finished third last year in the Interior Conference of the BCHL, just five points behind first-place Penticton, have a solid nucleus of returning veterans (including 2013 NHL draft pick Birks on defence) as well some exciting, talented new recruits. They expect to once again contend for top spot in their division. Watch for a possible Cents’ top line of Wight, Paré and Patterson. It has the potential to be one of the league’s best. The departure of goalie Tyler Steel to Brown University left a big hole to fill. Sophomore starter Russell Sanderson allowed just one goal in the preseason.

Coach’s Quote (Pierce): “We are very excited to get this season started with what appears to be a very promising, young group of players. This past year saw many of our long-time players move on, and we can’t wait to work on building the Cents’ culture with this new group. Expectations here are to remain in the upper echelon of our conference. We know how daunting that task is. With a lot of new faces playing key roles on our team, it will be up to myself and Joe Martin to expedite the process of teaching Merritt Centennials hockey.”

4. SALMON ARM SILVERBACKS

Key Returnees: F Alex Gillies (21-26-47), F Evan Anderson (10-14-24), D Mitchell Ferguson (6-16-22), G Adam Clark (18-16-1, 2.89 GAA, .914 SAV).

Rookie Sensations: Vernon minor hockey product Colton Thibault excelled in his first year of junior B with the Knights, racking up 16-26-42 in 49 games. F Jack Berezin, the son of former NHLer Perry Berezan, is a 17-year-old forward who recorded 12-5-17 while playing a gritty two-way game with the Calgary Buffaloes.

Strengths: In his first year as Salmon Arm’s GM, Troy Mick gutted the program, trading 13 of 16 returnees, and they still made the playoffs. The ‘Backs top line of Gillies, Anderson and Landon Smith will be supported by a deep forward corps.

Coach’s Quote (Mick): “I’m a lot happier where I am today that I was this time last year because I really didn’t know our roster. We’ve improved our program from top to bottom.”

5. TRAIL SMOKE EATERS

Key Returnees: F Adam Wheeldon (8-10-18), D Braden Pears (6-29-35) , F Scott Davidson (11-23-34), F Jesse Knowler (9-14-23), F Bryce Knapp (injured last season), and G Adam Todd (12-6-0, 3.63 GAA, .891 SAV).

Rookie Sensations: Although listed at five-foot-eight, Riley Brandt plays like he’s a foot taller. The 16-year-old combines sheer grit and determination, with touch and finesse around the net. He collected 10 goals, 27 points and 70 PIM in 49 games with the Beaver Valley Nitehawks last season. The arrival of 20-year-old rookie Dustin Nikkel (13-7-1, 2.71 GAA, .922 SAV) from the Knights, gives the Smokies a legitimate goaltending tandem that can single-handedly win games.

Strengths: The Smoke Eaters should have a strong and versatile defensive core with returning veterans Pears, Braedon Jones, and Valik Chichkin. Throw in newly acquired 20-year-old Curtis Toneff and Alberta pickup Joel Webb, 18, Nick Patey, 18, and Nathan Browne, 19, of Vernon, the Smokies will be big and stingy in their own end. Todd came in and performed brilliantly last season winning 12 of 18 games he appeared in.

Coach’s quote (Bill Birks): “Our goaltending is the best we’ve ever had here, with two legit guys that can play goal. Our back end played real well (in exhibition games). Our top nine, I think we’re pretty solid. We’re not going to score seven or eight goals a game but with our goaltending and our back end, we got a pretty good core group of kids . . . I’m excited to get going.”

6. VERNON VIPERS

Key Returnees: F Mason Blacklock (19-16-35), D Jason Bird (3-4-7), D Ryan Renz (3-23-26), G Austin Smith (13-26-1, 2.82 GAA, .908 SAV).

Rookie Sensations: F Matty Saharchuk led the KIJHL-finalist North Okanagan Knights in regular-season scoring with 32-28-60 in 50 games, and added 15 playoff points. Dallas Calvin, a 6-foot-5 forward, was fifth in KIJHL scoring last season with 31-43-74 in 40 games. F Liam Coughlin is a 6-foot-4 centre out of Catholic Memorial, the same Boston-area prep school that produced Viper grads Garrett Noonan and Mike Collins. First-year associate coach Mallette is coming off a stellar season as head coach with the KIJHL-finalist North Okanagan Knights, and will demand structure and accountability from the Viper back end.

Strengths: With the return of Blacklock, Craig Martin and Dexter Dancs, along with the addition of snipers Michael McNicholas and Demico Hannoun, the Vipers should easily outperform last year’s league-worst offence. Renz, Bird and Josh Bryan lead a physical defensive corps. The team is the biggest Vernon has fielded in years.

Coach’s Quote (Jason Williamson): “We’ll be good defensively, but at the same time we definitely have some offensive guys, so we’re going to be tough to defend against. We’re going to get the same out of all four lines.”

Contributors: Graeme Corbett in Vernon, Kevin Parnell in West Kelowna, Manny Sequeira in Penticton, Ian Webster in Merritt and Jim Bailey in Trail.

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