Photo: Jack Murray
Peter Muzyka was no stranger to junior hockey before arriving in Penticton. He was, however, a stranger to the West Coast.
“When I first came in it was still smoky, so it kind of threw me off at first,” Muzyka laughed. “Once that all cleared away you really got to see how beautiful the province was. Everything about the town and the area from top to bottom was just spectacular.”
Two seasons in the Ontario Junior Hockey League with the North York Rangers had been good for Muzyka. He was playing close to home, already had an NCAA scholarship to Cornell in his back pocket and was an anchor for the defence corps that gave up a league-low 110 goals in 2017-18.
While his two years were enjoyable, Muzyka was looking for an opportunity to move West and test himself against the stiffer competition the BCHL could offer. It wasn’t a quick process.
“I had heard Penticton was interested but I didn’t know that was going to be my final destination until August,” Muzyka recalled. “I know there was a ton of talk all throughout the summer. It was a long process and I’m grateful that Fred stuck with it.”
Muzyka’s playing rights were eventually dealt to the Merritt Centennials as part of the deal that had multiple moving parts before the Vees were able to acquire him and officially add him to their team in time for training camp.
Knowing he was going to eventually be moved out West, Muzyka had been putting in the work over the off season to ensure he would be able to adjust to the new competition he would be facing. Training and practice are never equal to playing games, as Muzyka learned quickly.
“It started in that first game against Langley,” Muzyka said. “We scored on the first shift of the game. In some other leagues there are games that are a guaranteed two points. Langley stormed back and took it to us and it showed you can’t take anyone lightly. It seemed on every team there were one or two guys who could just take control and change a game.”
Muzyka was on to something, as the parity in the BCHL might be at an all-time high.
His role from the beginning was apparent, as Muzyka has been a defensive player almost since day one. Having scored eight goals in two seasons in the OJHL, he didn’t want to change much upon his arrival.
“You can look at my point totals from years past and it’s no secret what my role is,” Muzyka laughed. “That’s what I’ve been good at my whole life so I don’t know why it would change. I’m not going to try and be someone I’m not.”
Muzyka had been a model of consistency in North York, suiting up for all 54 games as a rookie and missing just one his second year, but he wasn’t able to come close to that with the Vees.
After taking a high hit against the West Kelowna Warriors November 14, Muzyka was on the shelf for nearly two months.
“I know I had some ups and downs through my first 20 games but I was pretty happy with where I was at,” Muzyka said. “Then the next thing you know you’re out for six weeks and your jaw is wired shut for three of those. It was really tough watching the guys battle through without me. It was a terrible feeling.”
Being as much of a competitor as he was, it’s maybe not surprising that the moment his jaw was no longer wired shut he was begging to get back into games. Of course the coaching staff was having none of it.
“I couldn’t stand it anymore,” he said. “I wanted to battle, that’s just who I am. I can’t watch the guys do it without me. But if I came back right after those wires came out and get a punch in the face or something I could have been out for the entire year.”
Muzyka missed the next 14 games leading up to the Christmas break as the Vees coaching staff weren’t about to take any chances bringing him in before the break, considering the injury troubles they had already faced.
He didn’t miss a game for the rest of the season and was clearly not dealing with any hesitation once returning to the lineup as his physical play was taken to another level down the stretch.
“At the start of the year there was a bit of a feeling out process when it came to the speed of the games,” Muzyka said. “But the biggest thing was after those wires came out I didn’t want to be shy or timid or let other teams think they could take advantage of me. I needed to make sure I got over the mental aspect of thinking ‘your jaw is fine, go hit someone.’”
Players don’t have to score goals to get fans on their feet, and Muzyka showed that plenty of times once he returned to the lineup. He knew he was capable of showing that.
“You see guys like Miller, Snell or Hutchison, they’re big offensive guys and they love scoring goals,” he explained. “But for me, blocking shots, having good stick on puck and throwing hits is what gets me fired up. Making those big hits is like scoring a goal for me.”
Muzyka recorded three assists in 36 games this past season.
After advancing to the second round of the OJHL playoffs the year prior, Muzyka had visions of a long playoff run in Penticton, but reality set in with the first-round exit.
“That’s not the way you want to go out, especially with it being my final year of junior hockey,” he said. “When I heard I was coming to Penticton I thought this was my chance to finally win something. It was just a terrible feeling.”
Being a 2000-born player, Muzyka has two years of junior eligibility left, but will graduate and move on to the Cornell Big Red for the 2019-20 season. Though he admits there were some preliminary discussions about returning to Penticton for next season.
Even though he only spent one season with the Vees, Muzyka says he won’t soon forget about his time here.
“From the moment I got there until the moment I left it was truly a first-class organization,” he said. “I can’t speak enough about what Fred and the coaching staff did for me. Every single person in that rink plays an important role. The way that town supports the team is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Coming from a place where I played in front of 75 people a game to over 3,000 was just mind blowing.”
As excited as he is to begin his NCAA career and education at Cornell, there are a few things Muzyka wishes he could have accomplished with the Vees.
“Maybe not ring the post three times and actually score a goal,” he joked. “Certainly would have liked to go a lot farther in the playoffs. Even now, it’s been over a month and I can’t fathom that we’re not playing for the championship. It’s a sour feeling ending my junior career on that note.”
Muzyka will have four years to win a championship, and maybe find the back of the net, in Ithaca, New York with his new team.