Breck Vipers semi-pro hockey face Vail Yeti in home opener on Nov. 12 | SummitDaily.com

Breck Vipers semi-pro hockey face Vail Yeti in home opener on Nov. 12

Here's how the Breckenridge Vipers quietly won a semi-pro divisional title in the team's first season on the ice.

About two ski seasons back, near the start of the 2014-15 season, Rick Batenburg of Denver went to his first Mountain West Hockey League game in Vail. It was the second full season for the local Senior A Minor League team, the Vail Yeti, and a friend asked Batenburg — a former NCAA center and Canadian junior league player — to come play for one game, full pads and all.

"I was blown away," Batenburg remembered. "There were 800 people in the stands going crazy, having a blast, and I did not know that people could get away with this anymore. I played as a junior in Canada and it was the exact same thing."

Batenburg was hooked. By the summer of 2015, the owner of Cliintel Capital Group, a venture capital firm in Denver, pitched a new team to the MWHL: the Breckenridge Vipers, named for the semi-pro team his father launched and owned in Denver during the early '90s. (He'd even use the same logo.) The Vipers joined the Vail Yeti and the league's other two teams, the Pikes Peak Vigilantes and Boulder Bison, in a semi-pro league known for hard-hitting games and surprisingly elite teams. It's made for adult players who still love the game in its rawest, most bruising form, and that's just what the new owner wanted.

"I wanted to bring all my favorite parts about junior hockey and senior hockey to Breckenridge: cheap beer, cheap games, good hockey — just something that Breckenridge can latch on to," Batenburg said. "I want to give them something that is theirs, something to have pride and passion for."

Vipers in Breckenridge?

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But why Breckenridge? Simple enough: the market in Denver is too saturated with good hockey, Batenburg said. There's something at every level: the Colorado Avalanche, the University of Denver Pioneers, a semi-pro team, the Colorado Eagles of Loveland, and senior leagues spread along the Front Range, all competing for audience attention. That's the business side of his brain, but he's always had a soft spot for Breck, he said. It's where he spent winters as a kid before heading to Canada to pursue junior hockey.

Then came the Breckenridge Bucks, a collegiate farm program with the Rocky Mountain Junior Hockey League. The Bucks debuted at the Stephen C. West Ice Arena last season, the same winter as the Vipers, and stole some of Batenburg's thunder.

The Vipers is a grassroots organization — "They are, for all intents and purposes, our primary sponsor," Batenburg said of his venture capital firm — and didn't have the resources of a developmental league. Batenburg is owner, founder and starting center, while Breck-based player Tom Brown fell into his role as sponsorship and outreach coordinator when not on the ice as starting goalkeeper.

"It's actually been tough to find sponsorships," said Brown, a Massachusetts native who last played on the San Diego semi-pro team, the San Diego Skates, in the Vipers' same regional division. "You tell people, 'I play for the Breck Vipers,' and they're like, 'Who?'"

Attendance at the Vipers' first game last season was poor, Brown laughed, saying it was mostly friends, girlfriends and a few random stragglers. But it didn't stop Batenburg from building a competitive team of players from Breckenridge and Denver. He and winger Tyler Cavan even led the league in scoring last season: 17 goals and 41 assists for Batenburg, a whopping 23 goals and 25 assists for Cavan. (He also led the Colorado Eagles with goals and helped the Vipers land a partnership deal with the Loveland team this year.)

The Vipers rode this offensive barrage to a 13-5 regular-season record and the MWHL divisional title, which came with an invite to the MWHL Cup Final in Las Vegas. There they lost to Brown's former team, San Diego, but still ended the season ranked No. 1 overall in the MWHL 2016 standings.

"This wasn't supposed to be this big thing, this monster it's become now," Batenburg said. "I just wanted to see and play good hockey again. We have a lot of guys, like ex-German pros and ex-NCAA players, who haven't had the chance to compete at that high level. It gets lost for these guys — they have to hold something back in other leagues."

New season, same championship team

The Vipers monster is growing. Along with the Eagles partnership — expect three or four Eagles players to take the ice in Breck this season — Brown brought on Kaiser Permanente as presenting sponsor and local hotspots like Ollie's in Breck, Axis Sports Medicine, The Bakers' Brewery and Coors Light as team sponsors. That's translated into new uniforms, $20 bottomless beer tickets and 500 free T-shirts at the home opener Saturday night.

"Last season, Rick did it almost completely out of his own pocket," Brown said. "This year will be different. We've got sponsors, we've got interest in the team, and a bunch of guys who live up here, coach youth hockey and play. We're part of the community there."

It only helps that the Vipers are the only high-level club in town this winter. The Breck Bucks folded under mysterious circumstances over the summer — there were disagreements about contracts and unpaid bills — and the team's replacement, the Breck Bears, never made it to the first game of the season.

Meanwhile, the Vipers are back and better than ever, Batenburg promised. Cavan is returning, along with Court Nelson, who led the league with 10 assists as a defender, and Taylor Motsinger, who played Division 1 collegiate hockey for Colorado State University. The season runs from now until the end of March, when Batenburg hopes to make another trip to the MWHL championship game.

Only this time, it might not be as quiet.

"I absolutely f****** love this game," Batenburg said. "I love being around it, (and) I think it's a positive thing for the community and everyone on the ice. These players have some of the best character of anyone in any sport. I don't want guys who start bar fights, guys who are taking cheap hits — they're just good people. It's only going to be bigger this year."

Breck Vipers home opener

What: The first game of the 2016-17 winter season for the Breckenridge Vipers, the local semi-pro hockey team and reigning Rocky Mountain Division Champions with the Mountain West Hockey League

When: Saturday, Nov. 12 at 8 p.m.

Where: Stephen C. West Ice Arena, 189 Boreas Pass Road in Breckenridge

Cost: $8.50 to $27.50

The Breck Vipers open the season against cross-county rivals the Vail Yeti. Discounts are available for Vail Resorts employees with an employee ID. The season runs from November through April, with playoffs held until May. For more info about the team and league, including season tickets and individual tickets for the home opener, see breckvipers.com.

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Breck Vipers 2016-17 home schedule

All home games are played at Stephen C. Ice Arena in Breckenridge. For more info, including opponents and updated ticket and drink specials, see breckvipers.com.

Nov. 12 — vs. Vail Yeti at 8 p.m.

Dec. 10 — TBA at 8 p.m.

Dec. 17 — TBA at 8 p.m.

Jan. 7 — TBA at 8 p.m.

Jan. 14 — TBA at 8 p.m.

Jan. 28 — TBA at 8 p.m.

Feb. 11 — TBA at 8 p.m.

Feb. 25 — TBA at 8 p.m.

March 4 — TBA at 8 p.m.

March 11 — TBA at 8 p.m.

March 18 — TBA at 8 p.m.

March 25 — TBA at 8 p.m.

April 14 — Vail Yeti at 8 p.m.

April 15 — Vail Yeti at 8 p.m.

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