When longtime junior A coaches come to mind, Mike Vandekamp is at or near the top of the list when it comes to name recognition and reputation.
The Fort St. John, BC product has been behind the bench for nearly three decades with several stops and successes at each of them. Vandekamp began his coaching sojourn in the now-defunct Rocky Mountain Junior Hockey League with his hometown Fort St. John Huskies.
“Going into my 26th year of coaching junior hockey, I believe in just being myself. This is who I am, this is what I believe in, and I have always felt that way. I feel the players really appreciate that. I admit my mistakes to my players all the time. I am human. I love to talk to the boys about everything from life to hockey, and everything in between.”
“I kind of put my heart out there for them and we try to mold the team around that family attitude. We try to set the bar high and challenge each other in practice and workouts so that when the game rolls around on the weekend, it’s the easiest day we’ve had.”
In his lone season behind the bench in Fort St. John, the Huskies went 28-29-1, losing out in five games to the Prince George Spruce Kings in the RMJHL quarterfinals.
It didn’t take long for Vandekamp to get noticed by BCHL teams. He was hired by the Merritt Centennials in 1997-98 as an assistant. It was a role he had for two seasons before taking over as Merritt’s head coach for two more.
In 1999-00, Vandekamp took a rebuilding Cents team and turned it into a winner, posting a mark of 33-22-5, good enough for fourth place in the ultra-tough Interior Division. They ultimately lost out in the division final to Vernon.
Merritt was led offensively by blueliner David Kunda. He led the team in scoring with 94 points. Forwards Neil Stevenson-Moore, Ryan Minnabarriet, and Travis Rycroft were among those who scored timely goals during the playoff run.
The next year, Merritt went all the way to the Fred Page Cup final before losing out to Victoria in seven games. Again, Minnabarriet was among the leaders offensively. The Centennials’ core also included Brad Carpenter, ex-WHLer Aaron Winterholt, Ryan Robin, and Mike Ouellette.
Between the pipes, Jamie Holden was equally as impressive, posting a 1.98 goals-against-average to go along with a .944 save percentage.
A move northeast to Vernon
After a good, six-year run with Merritt, Vandekamp landed the head coaching job with the Vernon Vipers in 2001. During the 2001-02 campaign, the Vipers went 33-21-6, taking the Interior Division crown.
Vernon found another gear in the postseason, sweeping Merritt in the conference quarterfinals and then dispatching the Penticton Panthers in seven games in the Interior final.
However, much like a year prior with the Cents, Vandekamp and the Vipers fell just shy of winning the Fred Page Cup, dropping a six-game set to the Chilliwack Chiefs.
In 2002-03, the Vipers ended up taking the final step and claimed the league crown after going 47-12-0-1 in the regular season.
Vernon swept Trail, Penticton, and Chilliwack in the post-season to qualify for the BC-Alberta Doyle Cup championship against the Camrose Kodiaks.
After a spirited affair, the Vipers fell in six games to Camrose and failed to qualify for the Royal Bank Cup national junior A championship.
That edition of the Vipers had a whole slew of characters including netminder Matt Zaba, current Lethbridge Hurricanes bench boss Brent Kisio along with former NHLer Tyson Strachan and Canadian country artist Chad Brownlee.
Vandekamp’s final season in Vernon was another strong one as the Snakes went 37-15-1-7. However, despite the regular season success, the Vipers faulted in the Interior quarterfinals to the Trail Smoke Eaters in five games.
From there, Vandekamp spent the next year and a half with the Western Hockey League’s Prince George Cougars. He brought the Cougars back to respectability in 2005-06 with a 35-31-2-4 record.
The team was led by a young, promising core, which included Eric Hunter, Ty Wishart, Nick Drazenovic, Dana Tyrell, and goaltenders Scott Bowles and Real Cyr. However, Vandekamp’s run with the Cats ended halfway through the 2006-07 campaign, and he was replaced by Drew Schoeneck.
“Right, wrong or indifferent, I felt I had a really good run in the Western Hockey League. The relationships I had – or didn’t have – is probably something that soured it a little. (It’s) unfortunate because the win and loss record still looks pretty good,” chuckled Vandekamp.
To make matters worse, the Cougars ended up going on a magical playoff run that season, which included knocking out the top-ranked Everett Silvertips in round two before losing out to the Vancouver Giants in the Western Conference final.
Rocky Mountains and black fertile ground
It didn’t take long for Vandekamp to land on his feet following his departure in Prince George. He was hired by the Grande Prairie Storm of the Alberta Junior Hockey League as head coach, general manager, and director of hockey operations in 2007 and spent four memorable seasons in Alberta’s Peace Region.
The Storm rolled through much of its competition in 2007-08, going 38-18-6. In the playoffs, Grande Prairie slipped past the St. Albert Steel in five games during the division quarterfinals. In the semis, it scratched and clawed against the vaunted Spruce Grove Saints before dropping the series in seven games.
Vandekamp found his way to the top with the Storm in 2008-09. Led by the likes of Carter Rowney, Grande Prairie found itself among the AJHL’s elite with a 42-15-5 record.
The Storm kicked it up a couple more notches in the postseason by getting past the Lloydminster Bobcats, Sherwood Park Crusaders, and Brooks Bandits.
In the AJHL Championship, GP made short work of Spruce Grove, sweeping the Saints in four games to punching its ticket to the Doyle Cup.
Vandekamp’s former Vernon Vipers club prevented him and his crew from advancing to the Royal Bank Cup and swept the series in four games.
2009-10, was another campaign of great achievement for the Storm. The team filled the net 233 times, led by the big line of Zahn Raubenheimer, Travis Dunstall and Dennis Rix who each registered no fewer than 80 points.
However, the playoff success wasn’t as plentiful and the Storm dropped a five-game division semifinal set to the Fort McMurray Oil Barons. To end his first stint with the Storm, Vandekamp’s club earned a record of 34-22-4 in the 2010-11 regular season but fell in the quarterfinals to the Lloydminster Bobcats.
In part two of Clippers Confidential with Mike Vandekamp, I touch on his second run in the BCHL with the Nanaimo Clippers and Cowichan Valley Capitals along with his return to Alberta.