Kevin Mitchell: Stanley Cup fever hits home in Vernon

Thousands of fans in Vernon kissed or caressed the Stanley Cup on its three tours

Aaron Volpatti is cheering on his former Washington Capitals in the 2018 Stanley Cup final series.

Aaron Volpatti is cheering on his former Washington Capitals in the 2018 Stanley Cup final series.

When famed ring announcer Michael Buffer introduced the Las Vegas Golden Knights’ starting lineup the other night, fans went bonkers.

Vegas defenceman Nate Schmidt, a Washington Capitals’ castoff, sported a huge smile, likely trying hard to believe the epic Stanley Cup final moment, and his entire season, was not part of some MGM Grand hotel fantasy production.

“He’s a character,” said Vernon’s Aaron Volpatti, a former Washington forward, of Schmidt. “He’s the epitome of those players in Vegas. Those guys were given a little confidence and got some playing time and look what happened.”

While Volpatti, a financial banker downtown, feels like most hockey fans that a Vegas Cup win would certainly be cool considering they are an expansion team which gave love to a city hurt deeply by a mass shooting, he’s not openly pulling for the Knights.

“I’m cheering for the Capitals, ” said Volpatti, who spent three years as a power winger and feared fighter with the Vernon Vipers. “I still keep in touch with some of the guys (mainly former linemates Tom Wilson and Jay Beagle) and it would be nice to see them win. They get kind of a bad rap. They lose to the Stanley Cup champions (Pittsburgh Penguins) and they’re a big choke job.”

Volpatti, who turned 33 Wednesday, retired from the Caps following the 2014-15 NHL season with a serious neck injury. He played 114 games with Washington and Vancouver and gives Caps’ superstar Alexander Ovechkin major props.

“I think he was a great guy. He was always loose and kept it fun. His game has grown and evolved. He works hard.”

Volpatti, a Revelstoke product, calls Caps’ centre Nicklas Backstrom “The most underrated player in the league.”

Thousands of fans in Vernon kissed or caressed the Stanley Cup on its three tours (2008, 1997-98) thanks to Detroit Red Wings’ GM Ken Holland, centre Brent Gilchrist and scout Marty Stein. I have photos of both my sons sitting in the Cup and another of my daughter hugging the hardest trophy to win in pro sport.

Holland, my Little League teammate at Lakeview Park one year, asked me to be his family photographer the first year he brought the hardware home. That was a blast.

Washington head coach Barry Trotz has had a summer home here for more than a decade, but he would spend his allotted day with the trophy in his hometown of Dauphin, Man. so we’re out of luck this year.

Carter Rowney won the Cup a year ago with the Penguins and promptly bought a house in the Okanagan Landing. He was a 28-year-old role player who got in 22 regular-season games before skating in 20 Stanley Cup playoff tilts.

Rowney, who played Junior A for the Grande Prairie Storm, paid five years worth of minor-league dues before reaching the show.

“It’s surreal, it feels like it never happened,” he told me in the Vipers’ dressing room before a skate at Kal Tire Place last September. “It’s just something you dream of; it’s been unbelievable.”

Rowney rode in a wooden trailer in a Stanley Cup parade in the small northern Alberta town of Sexsmith which has more grain elevators than school teachers.

“It was a pretty special moment. It’s a small town of 2,500 and there were probably 2,500 at the parade so that was pretty cool. It was fun to bring the Cup back there and share it with my friends and family and the community.

When Canadian players are interviewed after hoisting the Stanley Cup, they always thank their parents for helping them get that far.

“My parents, Brian and Tracey, have been behind my back the whole way,” said Rowney. “There have been some ups and downs, and my wife, Danielle, has been through a lot too, and always supporting me.”

Rowney, like Volpatti, was hardly a slamdunk to reach the NHL. He said he was lucky to get a scholarship to the hockey factory North Dakota, where he progressed enough to play pro. Volpatti spent four years at Brown University and also got noticed along the way.

Volpatti says, either way, the Stanley Cup victors will be worthy and deserving. Bring on Game 3.

Vernon Morning Star