Lisa Mazurek Photography

Vipers draw fans and wins at home but look to cure road woes

With strong fan support, the Vernon Vipers have been successful at home so far this season but are looking to rack up more wins on the road.

As of Jan. 5, the club sat sixth in the British Columbia Hockey League’s Interior Division with 32 points coming from a 14-13-0-4 record. The Vipers boast the second-best home record in the division at 11-5-0-2. Away from the friendly confines of Kal Tire Place, the team is 3-8-0-2, which ranks Vernon eighth in the division.

“We definitely want to get more points on the road, get more wins on the road,” said Vipers head coach and general manager Jason McKee. “We’ve just got to continue to play our game whether it is at home or on the road. (It’s) just (a matter of) being really consistent in the second half. It doesn’t matter what building we’re in, we can’t change our style of play.”

A key to the success the Vipers have had so far this season is their special teams play. As of this writing, the team is first in the Interior in penalty kill at 86.2 per cent. The Vipers are fourth in powerplay efficiency within the division at 21.1 per cent.

Three players are tied for the team lead in goals with 10. They are Reagan Milburn, Luke Pakulak, and Lee Parks. Milburn, a Lake Superior State University commit, has team highs of 17 assists and 27 points in 30 games. On the blue line, Dylan Compton paces the Vipers with 10 points in 18 games. The Northeastern University commit is currently on a six-game points streak.

Kal Tire Place – home success

The Vipers boast the fourth-best home record in the BCHL this season. The squad is fifth among the league’s 18 teams with an average attendance of 1,808.

“Anytime you play at home, you’re a little bit more comfortable,” McKee said. “Our fan support this year has just been outstanding. The sheer number of people in the building and the atmosphere has been terrific all year. It definitely is felt on our bench and the support is obviously recognized by us and appreciated. I really think the fans are a big part of our home success.”

On Dec. 30, 2,201 fans cheered on the Vipers at Kal Tire Place. It was the biggest crowd of the season so far. Ethan David made 22 saves as he backstopped the hosts to a 4-0 victory over the Merritt Centennials.

“The Merritt game was incredible,” explained Vipers 20-year-old defender Griffen Barr. “It was the most Vipers fans I’ve ever played in front of. It was like having a seventh teammate on the ice. It was so much fun.”

Barr, who has committed to play NCAA Division I hockey at Brown University, has appreciated the community’s backing this season.

“It has been awesome to see all of the support from our community,” added the alternate captain. “For me, I know having 2,000-plus fans each game gives me plenty of confidence and energy to play well, so thank you Vipers fans.”

The squad tries to show its appreciation for the support by being involved in the Vernon community. One of Barr’s favourite activities is visiting Ellison Elementary School on Tuesday mornings. He and Pakulak usually read to the younger classes.

“I love going to the school because it reminds me of when junior A players would come to my elementary to read for me,” said the Nanaimo product, who played two games for his hometown Clippers as an affiliate in 2019-20.

Vipers’ road struggles

The Vipers’ road record ranks them 16th in the BCHL. Of their eight away losses in regulation, five were in one-goal contests. Two of their road losses were in shootouts.

“We’ve had some heartbreakers on the road where we’ve been tied and gave up one late or lost in a shootout, things like that,” said McKee. “I think our road record could be a little bit better than what it is, but even in some of those losses we were able to garner some points. Anytime you lose a game and still get a point, you’re not happy but you take your point and move on and get better and prepare yourself for the next one. (Play on the road) is a focus of ours.”

Photo credit: Lisa Mazurek Photography

Vernon’s resiliency and leadership

Overall, McKee is pleased with his team’s ability to persevere through tough times. “Our core players have really held this team together here. We’ve had quite a few changes throughout the first half (and) didn’t get off to the start we wanted, but we’re playing much better. I think the resiliency of the group can be commended for that.”

In September, the Vipers named Ayden Third, Barr, and Pakulak as their alternate captains. They definitely play big roles, but McKee also emphasized that leadership comes from all parts of the dressing room. The coach said the veterans weathered a challenging November in 2021 where they went 1-6-2-1 to ultimately post a 27-20-4-3 regular season record and make the playoffs.

“They kind of went through it. They know there’s light on the other side if we keep working at it and sticking together. They’ve done that,” he added. “I think there are some similarities there for sure and they used those experiences to kind of carry forward with this group and lead. Our veteran guys have definitely done a big part of continuing to see our team grow here.”

Heading into this weekend’s action, the Vipers are 6-3-0-1 in their last 10 games.

“We want to be playing our best hockey in the second half,” McKee said. “We’re trending that way. We got a lot of work to do, but we’re definitely making progress.”