By Jonathan West / USPHLPremier.com
Vernal Oilers (1) vs. Seattle Totems (2)
All Games At Western Park Arena
Game 1: Friday, March 10, 8:30 p.m. MST
Game 2: Saturday, March 11, 8:30 p.m. MST
Game 3: Sunday, March 12, 1 p.m. MST (if necessary)
The town of Vernal, Utah, tucked between the Colorado Rockies and the mountains around the Great Salt Lake, has a population of only 10,000.
In 2021, this town known for digging up dinosaur fossils put together some different bones to form a junior hockey club. The restaurants in town might close a little earlier, but their passion for Oilers hockey has no curfew. The Vernal Oilers have been ranked #1 in the USPHL for the majority of the year, due in no small part to Dave Imonti and his staff recruiting impressively for Northern Utah.
Alex Rene Bartakovics is from Prievidza, Slovakia, a town near the Czechia border nearly four times the size of his junior hockey home. Basketball and soccer are the most popular there, but Alex chose a different path and won the USPHL scoring title in this rookie season (37-84-121 in 40 games). He has scored five or more points in a game eight times this season, with a season high (nine) against Rogue Valley on Feb. 18. The right-handed center, who will play for the Provo Predators in the NCDC next season, acknowledges all the small things.
“Every game against Seattle was close,” said Bartakovics. “Good battles every time. They have a good team and they’re not easy to play against. We’ve worked hard all year and know what we are capable of achieving. If we do all the little things right during the weekend we have a good chance of winning this series.”
For nearly the last two decades, the Seattle Totems represent a namesake from Pacific Northwest indigenous culture and hockey tradition. The professional team won three titles between 1959 and 1968, and now the junior team is looking for their first title in their inaugural USPHL season.
Seattle used to be a gold prospectors hub, and now with the NHL’s Kraken sliding into the scene, the Totes are even more motivated to stake their claim in Pacific Northwest hockey success. General Manager Mike Murphy and his crew have created a family atmosphere with their players and across the urban community.
Raine Hodge from Guelph, Ontario is one of three Canadians playing for the Green and White this season. Starting his USPHL year with the Utica Jr. Comets, he followed one of his good friends from the GTA to the PNW in December. In only 24 regular season games, Raine averaged 2.5 points per contest (40g 20a) to rank Top 5 among Premier players with at least 20 games played. He has scored four or more points in a game eight times this season, adding a “Michigan” goal to his hat trick +1 on Jan. 21 against Bellingham. The left-handed winger, who will play for the La Ronge (Sask.) IceWolves next season, recognizes a specific challenge if he wants to return to Utica for Nationals.
“Vernal is a fast-paced team,” said Hodge. “They play the body and know how to get the job done in the offensive zone. Having a strong Totems defensive core, that’s going to be the biggest challenge we will have to face.”
Head to Western Park Arena tomorrow or tune into HockeyTV to watch would should be a great series.