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Departing Heroes – Volume 3 – By Don Klepp

Vernon, BC:  This is our final submission of Departing Heroes.  In this feature, Don Klepp showcases Josh Latta and Lane Zablocki.

Josh Latta Reaches His Goal

Confidence is crucial to success in hockey but sometimes a player’s confidence can be eroded by circumstances. Josh Latta’s three-year BCHL illustrates this point. He had a good first season with Salmon Arm in 2016-17, scoring 21 points in 42 games. Then, dealing with injuries, his play fell off the next year and he was traded to Vernon where he was a two-way player on the third line.

He says that his biggest goal in hockey has been to earn an NCAA hockey scholarship, which he accomplished when he signed with Alabama-Huntsville in January 2019. He says that “it took me a while to get it, but I owed it to my family and the Vipers to give everything I had this year to reach that goal. Last summer I worked my butt off to get faster and stronger and it’s great to see the hard work pay off.”

“This couldn’t be more of a well deserved scholarship,” says Head Coach and GM of the Vipers Mark Ferner. “Not only are they getting a very competitive, committed player, but they’re also getting an outstanding young man. We are extremely happy for Josh and his family. Coach Ferner played Josh in all situations, including power play and penalty killing and Josh responded by tying Teddy Wooding and Connor Marritt for the team points lead.

Josh was thrust into a prominent leadership role this year. He explains that “when we lost our two top forwards, Jagger and Jesse, for an extended period, some of our older guys had to step up. Taking on added responsibility helped me grow as a player. At one point I didn’t see myself as a first line centre in this league, but the team needed me to be that guy. It helped that we had complementary skills on our line; Mairsy (Connor Marritt) is a hard working stud and Matt (Kowalski) is creative, sneaky fast, and a sniper.”

Josh describes his own play as “opportunistic when I get chances, but I need to work on getting more chances. My shot is better than it used to be; I worked a ton on my shot last summer.” He’s realistic about how he will be successful at the college level – “first, I’ll have to work harder than ever and take advantage of the opportunities that I’m given. I realize that at the college and pro levels you can’t dangle through teams. You have to use give-and-go plays. To score goals, you have to have a quick release and be accurate because the goalies are so good now.”

Look for Josh Latta to continually grow and be successful – he’s learned through ups and downs in his BCHL career that he has every right to be confident in his ability.

Staying In His Lane

How does a teenage hockey player who’s been traded five times maintain his self-belief? Lane Zablocki admits that he has “struggled with it, actually.” He says, “Getting traded or released so often, going to all those different places, it’s hard, and then there’s pressure to produce for the new team. So you have to grow up in a hurry and figure things out for yourself.”

Lane began his Junior hockey career with the Jr. “A” Sherwood Park Crusaders in 2014-15 and finished with the Vipers in 2019. In between, he played for five teams in the Western Hockey League, Regina, Red Deer, Lethbridge, Victoria, and Kelowna.

He scored everywhere he went, especially for the Red Deer Rebels where he was installed on the first line after coming from the Regina Pats. That scoring touch, plus his physical, “in-your-face” style, led to being drafted 79th overall by Detroit in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. He has enjoyed being an agitator and has not backed down from scraps, which led to an average of over 100 penalty minutes in each full WHL season.

So why did he bounce around from team to team? Each trade happened in a different set of circumstances, but each time the receiving team coveted his services. Coach Brent Sutter in Red Deer liked Lane’s well-rounded game: “He doesn’t have just offence, he’s a gamer. He comes to play every night.” Victoria’s bench boss Dan Price appreciated Lane’s versatility, slotting Lane into all three forward positions, as required.

When he arrived in Vernon after being released by the Kelowna Rockets, he immediately impressed Viper fans with his speed, competitiveness, and scoring touch. In 11 games played in January and February, he contributed seven goals and five assists, which were especially useful with Jagger Williamson, Jesse Lansdell, and Logan Cash out of the lineup. A hyperextended elbow and an injured back slowed him down at the end of the season and into the playoffs, but he was once again a force in the Wenatchee and Prince George series.

After 29 games with the Vipers, Lane has a new perspective about the BCHL: “I didn’t realize how good this league is until I came here. A lot of players in the WHL look down on Junior “A” but there’s very little difference, actually. The DUB is more structured and there’s not quite as much time and space to make a play, but that’s it.”

He also came to appreciate Vernon’s fan support: “I’ve been to a lot of places but the community support here is probably the best I’ve seen. The fans and the sponsors are terrific. This was a great way to finish my Junior career.”