From the grittiness of Prince George and Grande Prairie to the scenic laid back lifestyle of Vancouver Island, Mike Vandekamp enjoyed a new lease on life in the BCHL.
After a four-year run with the Alberta Junior Hockey League’s Storm, which culminated in a league championship, “Iron Mike” brought his winning pedigree to the Nanaimo Clippers in 2011.
“For me, coming to Nanaimo was a decision that was both personal and professional. I wanted to get back to the BC Hockey League, but it was a good opportunity to move to a good city with my family at the time with young kids. I was always really interested in Nanaimo, having been there lots over years.”
“The organization was already in a good spot when I went there. Bill (Bestwick) had been there a long time and they had good ownership making sure the building was full every night. I wasn’t going into a situation where a whole bunch of work needed to be done to establish the program, ” said Vandekamp.
However, his first season back in British Columbia was a transition year, to say the least.
Gearing up for the 2013 Western Canada Cup, the Clippers went a pedestrian 26-25-0-9 in 2011-12 and failed to qualify for the Fred Page Cup playoffs.
“That was an interesting decision. We knew the tournament was going to happen, we as an organization had the ownership group, the community, and facility to take a run at hosting it. For me, as a general manager and coach I wasn’t sure we were ready to do that because we started the team over a bit the year before and were in the middle of rebuilding the team.”
However, the following season led to a complete overhaul of Nanaimo’s roster, including the acquisition of goaltender Jayson Argue from the Swan Valley Stampeders of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League.
“Jayson is a very unique goalie. He has his own style and he is not really a practice goalie so when you see him for the first time you would say ‘What have we gotten ourselves into?’, but once he got into games he relied on his athleticism and ability to track the puck. He sort of reminded me of Jonathan Quick of the LA Kings.”
“I’ll never forget the night he got his Division I scholarship because we worked so hard to get him an opportunity. The school that he went to was (scouting) in Penticton and he had this outstanding game – like he had for us so often – and they just didn’t want to let him slip away.”
The Clippers finished the 2012-13 campaign with a mark of 32-20-0-4. But, a deep playoff run didn’t quite materialize as they fell in the division semifinals and had to deal with a lengthy layoff ahead of the Western Canada Cup.
Vandekamp and his squad asserted themselves very well at the tournament, posting a record of 2-2 during the round robin. They scored 14 goals while giving up 11.
“It sorted of rushed the process for us because we had to build the team quickly and then take a step back the year after. I think that is the one thing that set us back a little bit because when you are the host, the team is generally older in a few positions, giving up a little bit of the future. We kind of had to dive right into it to be as competitive as we could.”
Nanaimo’s quest to win the tournament on home ice fell short as it dropped a 5-3 decision in the semi-finals to Yorkton Terriers of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League.
For the second time in three seasons, Vandekamp was forced to re-tool on the fly by bringing a wealth of talent, including prolific scorers Sheldon Rempal and Devin Brosseau.
A return to prominence
Vandekamp’s approach to building around his young core paid off handsomely as the Clippers were among the cream of the crop in the BCHL during the 2014-15 season.
While Rempal and Brosseau saw most of the publicity, Nanaimo was also led by forwards Brendan Taylor Cole Maier, Yanni Kaldis, Brett Roulston, and Nicholas Gushue. Nanaimo claimed the Island Division crown with a mark of 37-16-0-5.
“A lot of our strength was in goal. (Guillaume) Decelles was a 20-year-old that we brought in from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League who was big and very mature. (He was) just a leader on the team and the backbone. Some of our guys that ended up being real stars in our league were still younger like Brosseau, Rempal, and Kaldis. I almost wished we could combine the next year’s team – but with that said – we had an exceptional group.”
This set up a deep and memorable playoff run, which included a pair of seven-game triumphs against the Alberni Valley Bulldogs and the Powell River Kings.
“I remember the first series against Port Alberni because we went up three games to none and we were winning game four in their building and Guillaume, who never plays the puck, decided to play (it) and it went right to them to score and it tied the game. That made (the series) 3-1 and then they stole a game in our barn and eventually won game six. It was a great test for us and we pulled through.”
The Clippers advanced to the short-lived mini-series round where they placed second and advanced to the Fred Page Cup final. A chance at glory fell just shy falling in six games to the Penticton Vees.
“It was a fantastic series. We ended up winning both games in their building and we were in the driver’s seat, but they were such a good team. It was a heartbreaking loss, but that group stands out as one of the best groups I was ever a part of,” added Vandekamp.
In 2015-16, the trio of Brosseau, Rempal, and Matt Hoover set the league on fire thanks to their torrid scoring pace. Rempal, who later committed to Clarkson University, lit the lamp 59 times to finish with 110 points. His linemate, best friend, and college teammate Brosseau was the set-up man, registering 27 goals and 57 assists. Last and certainly not least, Hoover provided some jam, collecting 100 penalty minutes to go along with 38 goals and 43 assists.
Predictably, the top-heavy Clippers finished with their second consecutive Island Division title thanks to a record of 38-18-1-1. Nanaimo knocked out a couple familiar foes in Powell River and Alberni Valley in the opening two rounds of the playoffs.
Only this time, the Clippers placed third out of three teams in the mini-series and failed to reach the Fred Page Cup final for a second straight year. The final two years of Vandekamp’s run in Nanaimo were a lot less spectacular.
After falling below .500 in 2016-17, “Vandy” was let go during the holiday break of the 2017-18 campaign, despite being in first place at the time, and was subsequently replaced by Darren Naylor.
“I worked for the same ownership the entire time I was there and I think they believed it was just time for them to move on, and they were actively looking to sell. The new owners came in around October once the season had started and they had their own desires on how the team should be run and I respected that at the time and I still do.”
“We had a great team. I think, again, we would have loved the opportunity to continue with that team that year. (We) had won nine games in a row and lost (what would have been) the tenth one before Christmas break. We were the hottest team in the league at the time and we had a good thing going. We were a very close-knit group. The year before that, we started putting that team together (after) coming off a solid two-year run. Decisions are what they are and I had to live with it at the time and move on.”
16 is greater than 1
Vandekamp wasn’t on the unemployment line for very long and only had to travel 40 minutes down the Trans-Canada Highway to Duncan as he landed with the Cowichan Valley Capitals.
It was an injury-riddled, adversity-filled 2018-19 regular season as the Capitals finished with a less-than-stellar 17-35-6 record. They entered the playoffs through the backdoor by clinching the 16th and final spot.
Their reward? A date with the top-ranked Penticton Vees.
In a stunning turn of events, the Capitals performed one of the biggest upsets in league history by dispatching Penticton in six games.
“The whole team got torn apart that season. We were almost like an expansion team. We only kept two players that had been on the team the year before. It wasn’t anything personal to anybody (who) was there before, it was just the way it played out. I had made a couple of trades and wanted to acquire some guys from my old team in Nanaimo as well as some other veteran players to change the overall culture.”
“We always liked our group. We had a lot of adversity throughout the year including injuries and suspensions that hurt us at the trade deadline. They were the acquisitions that showed we still wanted to be in the fight to make the playoff spot. We kept saying ‘As long as we continue to behave like champions, we could be champions’. Down the stretch, we played our best hockey and we were healthy,” said Vandekamp.
Pierce Diamond shone brightly when it mattered most between the pipes, posting a 2.54 goals-against-average and a .923 save percentage. Offensively, the Caps received timely contributions from Paul Selleck, Niko Esposito-Selivanov, and Brady Lynn.
The Cinderella story ended in the next round and the Caps dropped a hard-fought six-game set to the Wenatchee Wild.
“There were a couple of little bounces that went against us against the Wild. Losing in overtime during game five was a tough blow for us, they scored on the power-play and we were only a bounce or so away from beating them as well. I think what that did was put the program back on the map. I think that is what that run did.”
Vandekamp’s Caps became a force to be reckoned with in the Island Division in 2019-20, scoring 194 goals in the regular season – their highest offensive output since 2011-12. Cowichan Valley placed second in the Island Division with a 35-16-0-7 record.
After needing just five games to complete their first-round playoff series, the Caps were gearing up for a highly-anticipated matchup against the Nanaimo Clippers in the second round – but, that was snuffed out along with the rest of the BCHL playoffs by COVID-19.
Speaking of the pandemic, it sent the entire junior hockey world into a bit of a frenzy and saw Vandekamp relinquish his job with the Capitals. The Fort St. John product went back to a familiar spot and ended up back with the AJHL’s Grande Prairie Storm where he led the franchise to a league championship in 2008-09.
In an abbreviated 18-game season in 2020-21, the Storm finished with a record of 9-8-1.
For part one of Clippers Confidential with Mike Vandekamp, click here.