Head coach Alec Dillon, assistant coach Cole Pickup, 25, and assistant Josh Coblenz, 23, aren’t much older than the players they guide on the University of Victoria Vikes hockey team. But hockey years are sort of like dog years — you’ve lived lifetimes by then.
Former goaltender Dillon played for the Victoria Grizzlies of the B.C. Hockey League, Edmonton Oil Kings of the Western Hockey League and the Vikes and was selected in the 2016 NHL draft by the Los Angeles Kings before a hip injury curtailed his pro career. Pickup starred with the Grizzlies and in four seasons of NCAA Div. 1 with the University of Nebraska-Omaha, earning a degree in business. Both came out of the Juan de Fuca Minor Hockey Association. Coblenz came out of Campbell River to play three seasons in the BCHL with the Powell River Kings.
“I was Vikes assistant coach two seasons before this and it was weird and kind of daunting at first to be shouting instructions to players who then were older than me,” said Dillon.
He has grown into the head-coaching role and brought Pickup and Coblenz along for the ride as his assistants. Dillon and Coblenz are also UVic students, finishing off their degrees.
“A lot of these guys are have already been through Junior A and Junior B and are of a very good calibre,” said Pickup.
Indeed, the non-varsity B.C. Intercollegiate Hockey League may be the best-kept hockey secret in the province. Don’t let the non-varsity status fool you. These guys can play. Simon Fraser University leads the league at 6-0 with the Vancouver Island University Mariners 3-3, the UBC-Okanagan Lakers 1-3 and UVic 0-4.
“It’s obviously not the start we wanted, but we are looking to regroup,” said Dillon.
In their first season together on the Vikes bench, Dillon, Pickup and Coblenz are trying to return UVic to the glory days of the BCIHL championships the club won in 2007, 2009, 2012 and 2016, the latter led by Calgary Flames draft-pick Patrick Holland out of the Tri-City Americans of the WHL. Holland, who played pro in the ECHL, Europe and in five NHL games with the Montreal Canadiens, is the kind of player who pops up in the BCIHL. The Vikes this season are led by six-foot-four defenceman Daniel Gatenby, who played in the WHL for Tri-City, Kamloops Blazers and Kelowna Rockets. A key Vikes recruit for next season is runaway VIJHL scoring leader Riley Braun of the Peninsula Panthers.
BCIHL teams have played NCAA Div. 1 teams tough in exhibitions, such as when the Trinity Western Spartans only lost 1-0 to the Wisconsin Badgers in 2016. The Spartans — the defending BCIHL champions from 2018-19 before the pandemic cancelled the 2019-20 playoffs and 2020-21 season — have moved up to varsity status in Canada West.
Although non-varsity, BCIHL players must be full-time students at their institutions. It continues a tradition in which UVic hockey has competed at both the varsity level, against the likes of Clare Drake’s former Alberta Golden Bears dynasty, and at a previous club level in the old Esquimalt Friday Night League at Archie Browning Arena. Notable UVic hockey alumni include Bob Nicholson and Tom Renney, who went on to careers in hockey administration up to the Olympics, world championships and NHL.
Harry Schamhart coached UVic to its four BCIHL championships and now serves as GM of the Vikes. Dillon, Pickup and Coblenz are leaning on him as they earn their coaching chops.
“There was a big turnover of players after the pandemic cancelled last season and we’ve had a decent recruiting class,” said Pickup, whose own pro playing dreams are now on the floor with the Calgary Roughnecks of the National Lacrosse League.
“With all the students that go to UVic, there is no reason we can’t build back to a great program.”
This week’s scheduled games, UVic’s on Friday night at the Ian Stewart Complex and VIU’s on Saturday at the Nanaimo Ice Centre, were postponed due to UBC-O being unable to make it down because of the highway closures caused by the flooding and washouts. That marks the end of play for the first semester. The Vikes and Mariners will resume league action with the Island derby Jan. 7 at the Ian Stewart Complex.