Heading into new season, Breckenridge Vipers hockey hopes for growth in community interest
With the Breckenridge Bolts not calling Stephen C. West Ice Arena home this winter, the Breckenridge Vipers are now the unquestioned hockey show to see when in Summit County. As the only team in town, the Vipers hope this season they can grow their fanbase and connection to the community through the physical brand of semi-professional hockey they bring to the ice.
The Vipers attracted 300 to 350 people per game last year during their fourth season of Mountain West Hockey League action. That said, Summit County local J.R. Engelbert — both goaltender and general manager for the Vipers — wants more for this team that features 13 Summit County locals with a range of junior, college and professional hockey experience in the United States and abroad.
Case in point: When Breckenridge traveled up and over Vail Pass late last winter to take on their archrival the Vail Yeti at Dobson Arena in the Mountain West Hockey League playoffs, Engelbert estimated there were somewhere between 1,700 to 2,000 people in attendance.
“So it’s a proven concept in towns like ours that it can be a full-on community event,” said Engelbert, who spends his days operating a snowcat at Breckenridge Ski Resort. “We are just trying to really push it now.”
Fielding a team of mostly Summit County locals with an average age of 26-and-a-half, the Vipers’ season will begin on Saturday with a home game versus the Pikes Peak Vigilantes of Denver. That’ll be followed by a game next week versus those archrivals from Vail, the Yeti.
As part of Saturday’s opening game celebration, the Vipers will be hosting a season kickoff party from 5-8 p.m. at Stephen C. West Ice Arena, where there will be snacks, drinks and giveaways, including free “Thrive With the Vipers” shirts handed out to the first 200 fans.
A week later, when the Vipers take on the Yeti on Nov. 24, there will be one former Vail player who is now suiting up for the Vipers. Forward Dan Autenreith, a Frisco resident, changed allegiances since the end of last season, when the Yeti advanced to the Mountain West Hockey League championship before falling to the Northern California Ice Raiders.
Last season, the Vipers lost three of four contests versus the Yeti. This year, though, with the battle-tested Autenreith in the fold, Engelbert hopes the fortunes change when the teams face off four times this season.
“You know how the town of Breckenridge is about the town of Vail, and how the town of Vail is about the town of Breckenridge,” Engelbert said. “… It’s as intense as you can get for us. Those are the four games that will just be all-out war for 60 minutes.”
Autenreith should provide an interesting perspective on the rivalry this year for a Vipers team that plays a wide-open, hard-hitting, run-and-gun style of hockey. Last year with the Yeti, Autenreith said that leading up to games versus Breckenridge there was a common refrain in the Vail locker room: “We have to beat Breck! We have to beat Breck!”
Engelbert didn’t mince words on the matter, saying there is no love lost between the two teams. Autenreith described the situation as one where a good pool of talent is spread between the two physical and prideful teams in Breckenridge and Vail. They are two sides that don’t mind bringing the hits right from the moment the puck drops.
“It should probably go zero to 100 immediately,” Engelbert said.
Vipers season tickets are $100 for a single and $175 for a two-ticket package. General admission tickets are also available for individual games, $13 for adults, $10 for those with a local ID, and free for children 13 and younger.
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