The 2016-17 season was a wild and emotional nine-month ride for the Penticton Vees, leaving president, GM and head coach Fred Harbinson with plenty to say about the past, present and future of the B.C. Hockey League team.
The Herald sat down to chat with the most successful coach in Penticton junior hockey history on Wednesday as the Vees players cleaned out their lockers and dispersed – some for the summer and some, at least as players, for the final time.
BCHL SEASON: The Vees went 41-13-3-1 in 2016-17, yet still had their detractors, especially after struggling in January in large part due to injuries.
Scoring didn’t come easy to a team that lost generational talents Tyson Jost and Scott Conway after 2015-16, and Harbinson didn’t disagree with the suggestion it was his most challenging season since before the Vees won the national title in 2012.
“It was the most we had to coach … changing systems, structure and having to get creative to win games,” said Harbinson, who also had to integrate a practically entire new staff of assistant coaches this year. “In January, people were laughing at us, thinking we were falling apart, but the foundation was so strong, it held us together in some stretches.
“We had guys like Brett Hextall and later Troy Stecher come in and talk to the guys. Then you have greats like Brendan Morrison and Paul Kariya coming in (for induction into the Vees Ring of Honour). Not many teams can draw on that kind of alumni component, and they’re all so proud of what’s being done here by the new guys.”
Stressing that it “takes a lot to impress me”, the coach suitably was after the Vees won three straight Game 7s to capture the fourth Fred Page Cup BCHL title in Harbinson’s 10-year tenure, then won three more ‘do-or-die’ games at the Western Canada Cup which the Vees hosted April 29 to May 7 at the SOEC.
“I’m always going to cherish this team,” he said. “They will be remembered for a long, long time. It was a special, special group. It may have been the most rewarding and satisfying season ever.”
THE WCC … AND THE RBC: Harbinson said earlier this year the Vees would consider putting in a bid to host the RBC Cup national championship depending on the success of the WCC.
The coach was non-committal this week, saying it’s something that needs to be discussed at length as an organization.
“The WCC was OK, attendance was OK, I thought it was run extremely professionally, but a lot was asked of our fans … we had 11 home playoff games before we got to the WCC and I think people were worn out a bit emotionally and financially.”
Philosophically, Harbinson wonders – for any number of reasons – if the BCHL should be partaking in the RBC Cup long-term.
“The other leagues don’t want to play by the same rules – mainly in terms of the fact they can use so many more 20-year-olds than our league,” said Harbinson. “And once you leave your league, you do nothing but lose money.”
Even in 2012 when the Vees won the RBC, he said he was more excited about beating Powell River in the BCHL final than the win over the Woodstock Slammers in the RBC title game.
“You battle with these (BCHL) teams from August to April,” he said. “The league championships are the big thing and other good leagues like the USHL end the season that way. I mean, we played 32 playoff games in 64 days. It’s something we need to discuss as a league. It would enable us to space out our playoff games a lot more and ultimately improve the product on the ice.”
He credited Cobourg for winning the RBC and doing a solid job of hosting the event, but noted they didn’t come close to winning their own league, then got on a run for a few days at a knockout tournament and came out on top with massive upsets of the Vees and Brooks in the semifinal and final.
“Of course we wanted to win it and we did everything we could to win with the team we had. But it really felt like a minor hockey type tournament compared to say, Game 5 of the Vernon series when we won in OT, which almost had a pro environment and feel to it. Then you have challenging road environments like Vernon and Chilliwack. It’s such an emotional letdown when we leave our own league to play.”
It could be food for thought when the BCHL holds its annual general meetings June 7-9, though nothing will change with the RBC this year with the Chilliwack Chiefs hosting the 2018 event.
The WCC has been discarded after five seasons, likely meaning a return to a best-of-7 B.C.-Alberta championship series with the winner advancing to the RBC.
FRED’S FUTURE: The 45-year-old native of Calgary has just two years left on his current deal. He will be sitting down in the near future with owners Graham and Sue Fraser where it’s quite likely an extension will be discussed.
Harbinson said probably the No. 1 reason he’s so content in his current position is his close relationship with the owners.
“They’ve owned this club for nine years and I don’t think they get enough credit,” Harbinson stressed. “None of this is possible without them. Graham gives us everything we need to be successful, he’s very respectful and trusts us to do our jobs.”
With the success Harbinson has enjoyed in 10 years in Penticton – four BCHL titles, six straight Interior pennants, three RBC Cup appearances (one win in 2012), a WCC title and recruiting an unparalleled list of elite players and moving so many on to top university programs and ultimately to the NHL – he has fielded several job offers and opportunities at higher levels of hockey.
“It comes down to the whole package of what we’re building here,” said Harbinson. “We’ll sit down and see where we all stand on the vision of this organization going forward. Right now I’m focused on building this team for next year and beyond.”
In a season where the Vees shattered attendance marks by drawing over 136,000 fans to the SOEC, Harbinson said he “loves” the culture that has been created when you walk into the soon to be 10-year-old building.
“It really is a mini-professional environment,” he said. “People have really taken a lot of pride in coming to the games and the community is incredibly supportive of the team.
“(But) it can go away in a heartbeat. We’ve seen it in other real good markets. You’ve got to keep the foot on the pedal. From my standpoint, I can’t guarantee a championship every year, but we’re never going to stop working and doing everything we can to contend year in and year out, and giving the fans the best possible entertainment value for the dollar.”
THE 2017-18 VEES: Harbinson said the Vees will have the most players returning during his tenure with the team, and some other high-end recruits waiting in the wings.
The coach likes the mix of leadership, experience, talent and upside the teams have going forward.
Confirmed returnees include goalie Nolan Hildebrand, defencemen Jonny Tychonick, James Miller, Joe Leahy and Kenny Johnson, and forwards Owen Sillinger, Taylor Ward, Grant Cruikshank, Jared Nash, Cassidy Bowes, Massimo Rizzo, Turner Ripplinger and Matt Gosiewski.
Defenceman Sam Rossini and forwards Chris Klack, Jamie Armstrong and Ty Amonte could return depending on the university programs they’re committed to. Aside from the graduating 20-year-olds, only defenceman Griffin Mendel (Denver) is definitely heading to university this fall.
“A kid like Cruikshank, he led us in scoring with 30-plus goals and he wants to come back and round out his game,” said Harbinson. “In 10 years, we’ve played 182 playoff games and that’s incredible experience for these young players. It’s like Hockey University 101 for them.”
Cruikshank was originally headed for University of Wisconsin this fall, but will go in 2018 instead.
The Vees Spring Camp starts Friday with 160 players divided into eight teams and playing a series of scrimmage games under the watch eye of Harbinson and his staff. Several of those will get invites to main camp in August.
Harbinson said the team will be announcing some of the top new recruits for 2017-18 in the coming weeks.
“We want to continue to be a good defensive team, but we want to be able to create a bit more offensively up and down the lineup,” he said. “It’s funny, the offence is usually the least of our worries.”
The gaping hole to fill will be between the pipes, where graduating veteran Mat Robson played 49 or 58 league games and all 32 playoff games.
Harbinson said rookie Nolan Hildebrand is a talented goalie who will “take another step” and Harbinson said another top goaltending recruit will be among those to be announced in the coming weeks