Assistant coach Kevin Kraus was pointing at captain Jagger Williamson as surprise newbie Ben Helgeson wrapped up his first practice with the Vernon Vipers Wednesday afternoon at Kal Tire Place.
“Jags will be giving you a ride to your billets,” said Kraus, making sure Helgeson could see Williamson in the bright-pink jersey designated for injured players.
Helgeson, 18, can play any forward position and is noted for a strong skating stride and a wicked shot. He flew to Kelowna from Minnesota this morning.
“I never thought I’d be living in B.C.,” he beamed. “I’ve only been here three hours but it looks beautiful.”
Rated by NHL Central Scouting last year, Helgeson went undrafted but was taken 26th overall in the U.S. Hockey League draft by the Waterloo Black Hawks. He finished last year with the Hawks after leading the Maplewood Hill-Murray Pioneers with 18 goals and 31 points in 25 high school games.
“There were some circumstances that went down and were out of my control, and I got contacted by the (Mark Ferner) coach here and it sounded like a great spot for me,” said the 6-foot, 190-pounder.
Once he processed information from Ferner, Helgeson surmised Vernon had a stellar coaching staff, proud tradition and a class group of players who engage freely with the coaches.
Helgeson orally committed to the NCAA University of Wisconsin Badgers when he was just 16, choosing the Madison school over home-state Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs and Michigan Wolverines.
Asked what he brings to the ice, Helgeson said: “I’m a power forward. I like playmaking too. I set guys up and just help the players around me make and create plays. “
A frustrated golfer who also played some baseball and football in high school, Helgeson is pretty much a dual citizen.
“I grew up in Roseau which is 10 miles from Canada and the rinks are open 24-7 so my buddies and I would always go out at four in the morning.”
Ferner got a phone call two days ago from fellow retired NHLer Chris McAlpine, a player agent in Minnesota, asking if he had room for another import.
“Sometimes it’s good to be patient,” said Ferner. “We know there are a lot of teams out there who are just starting (training camps) and we wanted to keep that one import spot open in case something like this happened.”
Ferner was impressed that despite incurring a crazy travel schedule to reach Vernon, Helgeson still wanted to practise with the Snakes. He had no problem matching the scorching pace in drills.
“As for where he fits in, it just gives us more flexibility with our lineup. For me, it’s about chemistry, who he feels most comfortable with and obviously, that will include conversations with our veterans that we can call on.”
Hockey runs in Helgeson’s family with older sister Morgan preparing for her freshman NCAA season with the Clarkson Golden Knights in New York.
Ferner plans to use Helgeson in exhibition games this weekend against the Salmon Arm Silverbacks.