The Red Deer Vipers have only been on the ice a handful of times, but the championship mentality is already percolating among the group.
Defending the Heritage Junior B Hockey League title for the third season will be no easy task, but fifth-year head coach JD Morrical is ready to lead the group into that challenge.
“Being in Red Deer, even when we weren’t that good, we had a target, because we’re the biggest city in the league and everybody wants to beat Red Deer. Winning the last two years, you can already start to see– teams are starting their camps a bit earlier,” he said.
“Teams are doing some things that we do because they see that it works. It’s exciting for me to see that, but also it makes us step up our game and make sure we’re ready to go.”
Over the past two seasons, the Vipers have a combined regular season record of 55-17-2. They scored 102 more goals than they allowed last year, had an .847 winning percentage and won the final 12 games of the regular season.
Winning the HJHL Championship in 2017 and 2018 has helped them build their roster in a variety of ways. Where they have faltered slightly, is at provincials. Last season they brought home a silver and the two seasons before they came up empty.
Morrical said those lessons all factor into regular season roster building and also help shape the way they need to play in order to win another provincial medal.
“Just knowing the league, this is my fifth year. I know what it takes. We’ve had some success the last couple years. We’ve been to provincials three years in a row. Knowing what it takes to get there, I think this team can get to the same spot we did last year and hopefully have a better result at the very end,” Morrical said.
“If you want to win the regular season in this league, you have to have a good offence. What we’ve learned is that’s important, but if you want to have success in the playoffs and provincials, you have to have solid team defence and you have to be super disciplined.”
Winning has also made recruiting a little easier for the coaching staff and management.
They are encouraged by a number of Midget AAA players from Red Deer trying out for the squad, something Morrical said he hasn’t seen in his years behind the bench.
He said even after the season ended last year, in July they had a pretty good picture of what their roster would look like, despite a majority of players not eligible to return.
“The last couple years we’ve had 16 players tryout, so we’ve basically had our team already,” he said.
“Now to have over 30, it just shows that the way we do things, the way we handle ourselves is getting around the league and the province. It helps with recruiting guys and bringing in some good and talented players.”
There will be some changeover from the provincial silver medalists, as always in junior hockey. The Vipers currently have seven 21-year-olds in camp, and can only carry four when the puck drops for the regular season next weekend.
“It’s really up in the air, we’re sitting at about 26 skaters right now. We have a lot of good young players. Our defence is going to be strong and we have three really good goalies at camp. We have some good options this year,” Morrical said.
Goalie Cole Sears, 20, is back for his fourth season with the Vipers. He posted a 2.35 goals against average and a .911 save percentage last season. A pair of netminders, Justin Travis and Justin Anderson are battling for the backup spot.
Morrical is also excited about a young line he’s assembled in camp. Red Deer Optimist Chiefs teammates from 2016-17, Keaton Sawicki, Tyrees Goodrunning and Justin Paarup will play together in exhibition action.
“It’s a young line, a small line but they’re all fast and have a ton of skill. So I’m excited to see what they bring,” the Vipers head coach added.
The Vipers started training camp last week, and have played a handful of scrimmages over the past week. They’ll play their first exhibition game on Sept. 15 at home, then travel to Wetaskiwin Sept. 16 before kicking off the regular season in High River on Sept. 21.