With more home games and local players, Breckenridge Vipers semipro hockey expects best season yet
Season opener vs. Utah Blizzard 7:45 p.m. Friday at Stephen C. West Ice Arena
BRECKENRIDGE — Six years after the Breckenridge Vipers semiprofessional hockey team was founded, team owner and center Rick Batenburg and general manager and goaltender JR Engelbert are confident the Vipers are finally becoming the town’s team.
“Breckenridge is a hockey town,” Batenburg said.
In the wake of a 2018-19 Mountain West Hockey League season, when the Vipers played for a title in Las Vegas, Batenburg, Engelbert and company have worked through the offseason to grow the team’s relationship with the town of Breckenridge and Summit County. This season, the Vipers will play 18 home games at Stephen C. West Ice Arena, more than ever before. The team also will feature more Summit County locals than ever before, with 20 of the 25 players residing in the county.
“You can see there’s a lot of deep culture on our team that is ingrained in Breckenridge,” Batenburg said. “So these guys really care about each other and the town and want to win for Breckenridge.”
Then there is the effort the Vipers have put forth to build a connection with the Summit Hockey youth program. Along with Summit Hockey Director Chris Miller, who is a defenseman for the Vipers, numerous players have helped coach and volunteer at Summit Hockey events early this season, such as the free mites program.
The goal, Batenburg and Engelbert say, is to further foster a culture of community hockey in Summit, where born-and-raised locals and talented athletes play for the Vipers. One of them is 2016 Summit High School graduate Sean Costello, who will play for the Vipers for the first time this season. When he does, he’ll join former Summit High School coaches of his, Shamus O’Neil and Josh Gionfriddo, who are now his linemates and fellow forwards.
“In previous years, we had a lot of Denver imports, and this year, there are a lot more local guys, and we have a lot better cohesion together,” Gionfriddo said. “We know each other, we go to the bar together, hang out together, play men’s league together. It’s a lot easier to have each other’s back and develop chemistry. We are kind of like a family.”
That Vipers family will be dispersed across the deepest lines the semipro team has ever had, head coach Rich Batenburg, Rick’s father, said. Rick Batenburg, who has led the Mountain West Hockey League in scoring the past four seasons, will be joined during Friday night’s season opener on the first line by some of the Vipers’ best talent, including speedy right winger Garret Bailey and former Vail Yeti veteran in the battle-tested forward Dan Autenreith.
The game versus the Utah Blizzard is at 7:45 p.m. at Stephen C. West Ice Arena in Breckenridge.
The Vipers then will have a strong second line including Costello, Gionfriddo and O’Neil at forward as well as a third line with the talent to skate with the league’s best. Then there’s a fourth line of grinders who know their role and how they can contribute to the Vipers fast, physical style of hockey.
Friday: vs. Utah Blizzard, 7:45 p.m.
Saturday: vs. Utah Blizzard, 8 p.m.
Nov. 22: at Texas Titans, 7:45 p.m.
Nov. 23: at Texas Titans, 6:15 p.m.
Dec. 6: vs. Boulder Bison, 7:45 p.m.
Dec. 7: vs. Boulder Bison, 8 p.m.
Dec. 20: vs. Pikes Peak Vigilantes, 7:45 p.m.
Dec. 27: vs. Vail Yeti, 7:45 p.m.
Dec. 28: vs. Vail Yeti, 8 p.m.
Jan. 7: vs. New York City Fire Department, 7:30 p.m.
Jan. 10: at Sun Valley Suns, 7:15 p.m.
Jan 11: at Sun Valley Suns, 7:15 p.m.
Jan. 17: at Vail Yeti, 7:30 p.m.
Jan. 18: at Vail Yeti, 7:30 p.m.
Jan. 31: vs. Pikes Peak Vigilantes, 7:45 p.m.
Feb. 14: vs. New York City Police Department, 7:45 p.m.
Feb. 15: vs. New York City Police Department, 8 p.m.
Feb. 21: at Park City Pioneers, 7:30 p.m.
Feb. 22: at Park City Pioneers, 7:30 p.m.
March 6: vs. Park City Pioneers, 7:45 p.m.
March 7: vs. Park City Pioneers, 8 p.m.
March 13: vs. Pikes Peak Vigilantes, 7:45 p.m.
March 20: vs. Denver Leafs, 7:45 p.m.
March 21: vs. Denver Leafs, 8 p.m.
“We’re going to have three really good top lines on the forward side,” said Engelbert, the team’s starting goaltender. “So to be able to roll three lines confidently is going to make it that much easier for everyone to go, go, go every shift and help cover each other.”
Rich Batenburg said that between the town of Breckenridge and community sponsors — such as Breckenridge Grand Vacations, Vail-Summit Orthopaedics and Ollie’s Pub & Grub — the Vipers have received more support leading up to this season than ever before. Creating that community connection was also a point of emphasis for Engelbert as the general manager worked strategically through the summer to schedule exhibition games against teams from across the country interested in descending on Breckenridge for a weekend of hockey in a ski town. For the Vipers, staying home at Stephen C. West Ice Arena and playing 18 of their 26 games in Summit County helps the semipro team financially while also having more of a presence in the community.
As for their road games, the Vipers will travel to Dallas to take on the Texas Titans from Nov. 22-23 before traveling to Sun Valley, Idaho, to face the Sun Valley Suns from Jan. 10-11. The only other road contests this season will be a trip to take on arch-blood-rival Vail at Dobson Ice Arena from Jan. 17-18 and the Park City Pioneers in Utah from Feb. 21-22.
Otherwise, the Vipers will defend their home ice against such sides as the Blizzard, who they also will take on at 8 p.m. Saturday, the New York City Fire Department (Jan. 7) and the New York City Police Department (Feb. 14-15).
Come Friday night’s season opener, the Vipers hope their increased emphasis on a family-friendly atmosphere is on full display. This year, the Vipers are admitting members of the Summit Hockey youth program and children 13 and younger to games for free while Summit High School students will be able to watch games for $5. Single game tickets sold at the door will be $10, and season ticket packages for 18 games run $150.
Playing the evening of Breckenridge Ski Resort’s opening day, the Batenburgs and Engelbert are confident the Vipers will continue to blossom as an evening sporting option for locals and vacationers to take in after a day out on the slopes. And judging by how well this year’s version of the Vipers have gelled during official and unofficial practice sessions on the ice, Breckenridge is in for a show this season.
“I really think that putting together a squad that is really together more — on the ice together more and off the ice together more … they are going to find a way to persevere,” Rich Batenburg said. “That’s really the game plan for this year: To put a bunch of guys on the ice that care about each other.
“This team is completely bootstraps from the very beginning, and this is the first year the town has rallied behind us, and I think the boys are really sensing that. And that’s kind of — it’s a sense of pride. You want to put the jersey on for the people that are coming out to watch the games and for each other.”
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