As the beginning of the Heritage Junior B Hockey League (HJHL) season approaches this weekend, the Red Deer Vipers expect to be better.
In 2022, the Vipers lost in the qualifying round of the HJHL playoffs to the Rocky Rams.
After finishing with a 12-24-2 record, it was a frustrating end to a season where they felt they didn’t live up to their potential.
Now with a new head coach and 12 rookies on the roster, the Vipers are young but they hope to take a step up this year.
“I do know that there’s going to be some growing pains,” said Vipers director of hockey operations Brady Sim.
“We are definitely a young team… Invariably, you’re going to go through some stretches where you might look at the record and not like it.
“But the good news is the guys we’ve got all have the right mindset, attitude, and the right vision of where we want to take this team.”
Under head coach Matt Michalezki the Vipers’ main goal for the season is to compete every night at a high level.
“We want to be a defence first team. We’re going to have good goaltending we know that Josh Hilts is back… We’re also going to have a solid defensive core and other than that I think the way we want to play defence first but more than that is we want to play physical,” he added.
The Vipers aspire to be hard to play against and make the Servus Arena the hardest rink to play in in the HJHL. Over half of the team will be new players with a few not returning to the team.
“We made a decision to get younger and bring in not just first-year guys but good players,” he said.
“We’re really happy with the recruiting class… It’s a bit of a double-edged sword, we’re going to be an energetic and bombastic team but we’re going to have growing pains. It’s a tough league to play in whenever you move in from minor to junior hockey.”
The Vipers begin the season against the HJHL finalist Sylvan Lake Wranglers Friday in Sylvan Lake. Red Deer’s home opener against the Cochrane Generals is Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Servus Arena.
“We’re really excited,” Sim said. “We believe in this group and like I said it’s definitely a different makeup but we think that there’s no reason why we can’t beat any team that we play in this league on any given night.
“It’s always said that if you’re going win the ultimate prize it starts in net and on defence. I think that’s our strong suit this year.”
The Vipers brought back their defensive core of Boston Lajeunesse, Brandon Kalinowski, and Keaton Mackenzie-Clermont. As well, they’ll return 20-year-old goaltender Josh Hilts.
“If you start with that everything else will fall into place.”