Waiting 38 days in between hockey games is hardly a template for success. Or is it? Vernon’s Trevor Fitzgerald, captain of the Nanaimo Clippers, believes taking the tourist route to the Crescent Point Energy Western Canadian Junior A Hockey Cup just may work.
The Clippers open the five-team tournament Saturday afternoon against the Alberta champion Brooks Bandits (they grounded the Spruce Grove Saints 6-5 in OT in Game 5 Friday night in Brooks to retain their AJHL title).The Clippers were knocked out of the BCHL playoffs by the Alberni Valley Bulldogs on March 20.
Head coach Mike Vandekamp sent his players home for a 20-day rest, calling them back last week for a mini training camp. They held scrimmages Saturday after a full week of tough conditioning practices and will take today off.
“We kind of look at it as a lot of the teams coming here will have a hangover,” said Fitzgerald, who won a Royal Bank Cup in Dauphin, Man. with the Vipers as a gritty 18-year-old. “They’ve celebrated winning their league, but it’s not the end. There is something else bigger.
“I know, when I was with Vernon, we beat Powell River in four and it felt like it was a bigger deal than playing Spruce Grove. It was like the Doyle Cup was getting in the way. Hopefully we can jump on them. We have fresh legs and we’re definitely good enough to win.
“Look at the teams in the final (Surrey Eagles and Penticton Vees), we went 1-1 with both of them. We could have gone all the way. We hit a bump in the playoffs so we’re not going to get blown away by anybody.”
Fitzgerald, 20, was traded by the Vipers to the Prince George Spruce Kings two summers ago. He was then packaged to Nanaimo in a deal which saw the Fitzgerald triplets land in PG.
He is blessed with the full-meal deal as a hockey player. Tough, smart, good hands, tremendous work habits and a leader who adores the game.
The 6-foot, 200-pound power forward led the Shipmen with two goals and six points in their playoff series. He was fifth in team regular-season points with 16-26-42 and 90 penalty minutes.
Vandekamp shuffles his lines like he’s a blackjack dealer but Fitzgerald normally ends up playing alongside ultra-talented American Reid Sturos, who had an awesome game here back in early November.
“He’s pretty easy to find,” said Fitzy. “He’s got lots of speed so it makes my job easier.”
The Clippers enjoyed a 32-win season, good for sixth overall in the 16-team BCHL. They traded for the Vipers’ heart and soul Aaron Hadley at the deadline, but he broke a kneecap soon after and will be sorely missed next week.
Kyle Kramer is a homegrown 30-goal man and slick playmaker Greg Fraser, of Qualicum Beach, led the Clippers with 59 points. Vernon’s Colton Dahlen (3-13-16) is part of a solid defensive corps anchored by Josh Bryan of Sidney. In net, Vandekamp can toss a penny in the air and call heads or tails to decide who starts. Jayson Argue of Swan River, Man. and Derek Dun of Surrey had almost identical GAA and save percentage stats this season.
“They are top-of-the-league good,” said Fitzgerald. “They are unbelievable. They switch it up. They pretty much go until they lose. And Dunner is a southpaw so he’s hard to score on in practice. He catches with his other hand and that messes up shooters.”
Being away from home for two seasons and running the show for one of the league’s most storied franchises has made Fitzgerald a better man.
“It’s been a huge learning experience. Being a second-year captain sure changes your outlook on things.”
Once the hockey season ends, Fitzgerald will decide where he will go next fall. He wants to combine education with hockey.
While home, he took in two of the Junior B Knights’ playoff games in Armstrong, including Game 7 against the Osoyoos Coyotes. He won $430 in the 50-50 jackpot that night, only fitting since he scored a ton of goals for the Knights as a 17-year-old.
The Steinbach Pistons of Manitoba and the Yorkton Terriers of Saskatchewan are also in the Western Cup. The winner and runner-up advance to the RBC nationals, May 11-19, in Summerside, PEI.
Don’t bet against Fitzgerald hitting an even bigger jackpot and reaching the RBC.