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Vernon claims record fifth junior A championship with victory over Humboldt

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VICTORIA, B.C. - Andrew Hammond capped his junior hockey career in championship style Sunday night, making 27 saves as the Vernon Vipers blanked the Humboldt Broncos 2-0 in the RBC Cup final.

The 20-year-old goaltender starred as Vernon captured a record fifth national Junior A hockey championship before a crowd of 1,917 at Bear Mountain Arena. The Vipers eclipsed the record they had shared with the Prince Albert Raiders in winning their first title in 10 years.

"It's amazing," said Hammond. "You work hard and you have it pay off exactly the way you wanted as you go out of your junior career. I couldn't ask for more. It's a storybook ending."

Braden Pimm and Kyle Bigos scored power-play goals for the Vipers as they scuffled through a scoreless first, took a 1-0 lead in the second and then clinched the win 14 minutes into the third. Vernon finished the tournament with a perfect 6-0 record.

The Broncos were denied a rare chance to repeat as national Junrio A champions. The Broncos were seeking to join Vernon (1990 and 1991) and Prince Albert (1981 and 1982) as the only clubs to win back-to-back titles in the tournament's 38-year history.

"I thought our guys battled hard to the very end," said Humboldt general manager and coach Dean Brockman. "They didn't leave anything behind, so I'm pretty proud."

Hammond, unwanted by his former team in Surrey and traded to Vernon at last season's British Columbia Hockey League deadline, was kept busy in his final game before starting his scholarship at Bowling Green State University in Ohio next season.

"I kind of knew it was going to be, probably, a low-scoring game," said Hammond. "I never knew (what would happen). I just didn't want to give up that first goal, because I figured that would be huge. You get kind of tired as the first period wore on into the second there. I thought that first one would probably put us in the driver's seat for most of the game. Once we got that, it was a little bit easier."

In a sharp contrast to their performance in a 7-1 loss to Vernon in round-robin play, the Broncos outshot the Vipers 27-24.

Vernon converted two of five power play chances while the Broncos were blanked on three.

Pimm gave Vernon a 1-0 lead on a power play about two and a half minutes later as he scored in a scramble. The goal came while Humboldt captain Brady Wacker was serving a roughing penalty.

Humboldt ran into penalty trouble in the third period and could not generate much offensively. Bigos, chosen as the tournament's most valuable player Saturday, secured the victory at the 14-minute mark as he skated from the side boards, cut in front of the net and deked Humboldt goaltender Mathieu LaRochelle.

The 19-year-old Upland, Calif., native, whose parents surprised him a day earlier by showing up in Victoria after making the trip from their hometown, said the Vipers strived to keep their focus as they culminated their season with a perfect record in the tournament.

"We did a really good job of keeping our head down, our blinders on and keep working for our (championship) goal," Bigos said

Both teams had trouble keeping their composure. Three players - two from Vernon and one from Humboldt - were ejected automatically for checking-from-behind penalties in the first 40 minutes.

The Broncos struggled offensively after Matt Kirzinger, chosen as the most valuable player in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League playoffs, was the first ejected at 13:58 of the first period.

Kirzinger, 21, skated off the ice with his head bowed as his junior career came to a premature end. The ejection was even more painful because he had missed all four round-robin games and only returned for Humboldt's 3-2 semifinal victory over the Victoria Grizzlies in which he scored.

"Obviously, we didn't score any goals, so it's tough to win that way, especially with him not being in the lineup, because he creates more of those chances," said Brockman. "He wasn't there, so you can't do nothing about it after it's called."

But Wacker, 20, who also played his last game before heading to play for Bemidji State in Minnesota next season, said Kirzinger's ejection provided the Broncos with extra motivation to win for him.

"I feel him, especially watching most of the tournament (because of the injury)," said Wacker. "It sucks but we just had to keep battling, and I thought we did that. We wanted to win for him after that happened. It didn't happen, but we gave it our best, so we're all able to hold our heads high tonight."

Notes-Bigos was also named the tournament's top defensive player. Anthony Grieco of the Victoria Grizzlies picked up the top goaltender award while Vernon's Connor Jones was named top forward and his teammate Ryan Santana was judged the most sportsmanlike . . . The Canadian Junior Hockey League and Hockey Canada announced a partnership with the NHL to improve the exposure and development of Junior A hockey across the country. The deal calls for the NHL to work with the CJHL's 10 member leagues, which oversee 143 teams, and promote events like World Junior A Challenge, CJHL Prospects Game and National Junior A Championship. The junior circuits will also increase their ties with NHL Central Scouting and grant scouts more access to top players.

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