For a town of about 40,000 that is 2,918 miles from Boston, Vernon, British Columbia, has become an important destination on the development journey of hockey players from the Hub and its suburbs.
Defenseman Mark Hamilton (Winthrop, Mass.) and forwards Liam Coughlin (South Boston, Mass.) and Mike Iovanna (Middleton, Mass.) are the latest players from the area to suit up for the Vernon Vipers of the Junior A British Columbia Hockey League.
In Coughlin’s case, he is the latest player from Catholic Memorial High School to head to Vernon, about four hours east of Vancouver. Current Merrimack senior Mike Collins (West Roxbury, Mass.) was first in 2008-09 and was part of back-to-back national championship teams. He was joined for the second one in 2009-10 by current Boston University senior Garrett Noonan (Norfolk, Mass.). The Vipers endured the 2010-11 season without a CM Knight before UMass-Amherst freshman Marc Hetnik (Brookline, Mass.) joined the club in 2011-12 for a two-year hitch.
Now, Coughlin carries the CM torch with two outsiders, Iovanna, who was a Catholic Conference rival at Malden Catholic, and Hamilton, who played four years at Salisbury.
There is some reasoning behind all of this.
“I played for (Harvard assistant) Albie O’Connell (Watertown, Mass.) when he was an assistant at Niagara and I kept the relationship,” said Vernon GM and head coach Jason Williamson. “When he went to Merrimack (in 2007-08), that’s where it started.
“Now, those players recruit for you.”
Indeed, Noonan’s experience influenced Hamilton’s decision.
“My advisor (Dale Dunbar) had sent Garrett Noonan out here,” said Hamilton. “He loved the league and (Dunbar) thought it would be good for me to work on my offensive skills.”
The BCHL would be comparable to the USHL as Canada’s top development league for college-bound players, with 126 players making Division 1 commitments last year. Unlike major junior hockey players who are paid a stipend and lose NCAA eligibility, Canadian Junior A players retain their amateur status.
After finishing his senior season at Salisbury, Williamson met Hamilton at nationals with the Under-18 Neponset Valley River Rats. At the time, Hamilton was committed to UMass-Amherst and wasn’t sure if he was playing a year of juniors or going to college. When he realized it was juniors, between Williamson and Dunbar and Noonan’s experience, he settled on Vernon before the USHL draft. He is now exploring his college options, both out west and back east.
Another factor in joining the Vipers is that Vernon is hosting the Canadian Junior A championship this year. As the host, Vernon has an automatic entry to the five-team field that includes two teams from Western Canada and one each from Ontario and Quebec.
“With Liam, Mark and Mike, we used nationals as recruiting tool,” Williamson said. “They were brought in to be impact players right away. We need to be deep and that’s why we brought them here.”
Vernon has won a record six national titles.
“Since it was going to be here, the team was going to be good and have a good chance to win it,” Hamilton said. “It definitely played a big role.”
Williamson said Hamilton, 19, is a stay-at-home defenseman and a big one at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds.
“He’s physical, Williamson said. “He’s definitely got a mean streak. He plays with some good edge. He’s playing a lot of minutes due to some injuries. I think his upside is huge.”
Coming off a senior season at CM where he posted 27 goals and 51 points in 21 games as the Division 1 Player of the Year, Coughlin’s season goal is somewhat the reverse of Hamilton’s.
“His offensive instincts are very good,” Williamson said. “He competes. He’s good on draws. He has to get better in the defensive zone but those are things we have to teach him.”
Dubuque tabbed the 6-foot-3, 200-pound Coughlin with the 30th overall pick in the USHL draft. Williamson said he came to Boston and met with Coughlin and CM coach Bill Hanson (South Boston, Mass).
“(Coughlin) felt comfortable with what we had going and the guys that were here pushed him that way,” Williamson said.
Coughlin, 19, had two goals and an assist in his first game in a showcase and was 2-2-4 in his first seven games, tied for sixth among rookies. He is getting a lot of college interest and has said his dream is to play for a Beanpot school.
Iovanna, 19, is already committed to UMass-Amherst. He posted 15-27-42 numbers in 22 games last year as a captain for MC as the Lancers captured their third straight Super Eight championship.
Iovanna came to the Vipers’ attention through the connection with Dunbar, Williamson said.
“He’s an energy guy, a smaller guy,” Williamson said of the 5-9, 160-pound Iovanna. “He’s pretty skilled. He has good offensive instincts. He’s learning the game a little bit more at this level. He has definite potential.”
If the national championship is won come May, maybe duck boats will roll through the streets of Vernon to honor the Boston-Vipers connection.
This article originally appeared in the October 2013 issue of New England Hockey Journal.