Photo Credit: Jack Murray
Ryan Sandelin had plenty of options heading into the 2017-18 season. After graduating high school in his hometown of Hermantown, Minnesota, Sandelin had to choose where he was going to spend his junior career. While there were a plethora of choices, both near and far from home, the desired destination quickly became apparent.
“I got a couple emails and calls from a number of teams in the USHL and even the Wenatchee Wild,” Sandelin admitted. “The Vees also contacted me and there has been a lot of players that played for my dad who had gone through Penticton.”
Sandelin’s father, Scott, has been the head coach at the University of Minnesota-Duluth since before Ryan could talk. Hired for the 2000-01 season, Scott took over a program that recorded just seven wins the previous season and has turned them into an NCAA powerhouse. They just won their second straight NCAA National Championship on the weekend.
A handful of players have gone through Penticton on their way to Duluth, including goaltender Hunter Miska who made his NHL debut this season, and an off-hand thought from years past came to fruition for the Sandelin family.
“Even growing up he kind of threw it out there as a joke that one day maybe I would go to Penticton too,” Sandelin recalled. “Growing up in Minnesota most guys want to play in the USHL or the NAHL. I had the chance to come up the Penticton during the Western Canada Cup and I kind of just fell in love with it right away. The facilities, the coaching staff, the town, it was just an opportunity for me to get away and see a new part of the world.”
Moving so far away from Hermantown wasn’t an issue for Sandelin. The history of the program played a major factor in his decision to move up to Canada, and knowing he was going to play two years of junior hockey he wanted to go somewhere he would feel comfortable.
While Sandelin was a huge offensive contributor during his high school days, scoring 63 points in just 25 games his senior season, the gap between high school hockey and junior hockey in Canada was larger than he anticipated.
“I wanted to be a big-time player,” Sandelin said. “Coming out of high school you’re so used to having a lot of success and you want to continue that into junior, but I think a lot of people, including myself, don’t realize how hard it is. I wanted to be a top-six forward and score and be a difference maker, but I didn’t have the year I wanted. I always knew I was playing two years, so I wanted to be a sponge and learn as much as I could during that first year.”
The adjustments weren’t limited to the skill level during the season. Practicing hard every single day and learning how to carry himself on a daily basis were things Sandelin quickly learned during his first year in Penticton.
While the results on the ice weren’t there as much as Sandelin hoped, finishing the season with eight goals and 13 assists in 55 games, it was an injury sustained near the end of the year that was the toughest pill to swallow. February 18 the Vees were in Surrey and Sandelin had the puck in the corner of the Eagles zone before taking a heavy shoulder-to-shoulder hit from Chase Danol.
“I thought I had more time than I did and I didn’t see the guy coming,” Sandelin recalled. “That was probably the hardest I’ve ever been hit. I felt like my body was just shutting down. It was really unfortunate because one of my goals for the year was to play in all 58 games.”
A separated shoulder kept Sandelin out of the final three games of the regular season and the opening-round sweep of the Coquitlam Express before he returned for all seven games against the Trail Smoke Eaters, though he admitted it was difficult to jump into a tough playoff series after missing time.
With his first season coming to an end following that series, he was determined to come back stronger and more impactful for the 2018-19 season. The coaching staff of the Vees were hoping for the same when they awarded him with an ‘A’ on his jersey for the next year.
“Just considering how my exit meeting went I thought that might be a real possibility,” Sandelin said. “That was really exciting. The players who have worn letters on their jerseys for that program is astounding. I was really fortunate to get that opportunity from the coaches knowing they trusted me enough to be a leader for the team.”
Sandelin took his leadership role personally, wanting to do everything possible to inspire his teammates to play better. It clearly worked as he was awarded the Vees Most Inspirational award at the conclusion of the regular season.
The work put in during the offseason and increased role as a second-year player did wonders for Sandelin as it took him just 14 games to match his goal output from his rookie year. He finished with 31 to lead the team while his 15 power-play goals ranked first in the BCHL.
“I really enjoyed coming to the rink knowing I was going to be a guy the team relied on,” Sandelin said. “You want the pressure and the challenge of performing every night. I want to be the best at what I do every time I step on the ice. I feel like for the most part I did that and I gave it my all every chance I got.”
The offensive numbers exploded compared to his rookie season, but Sandelin was unfortunately not immune to the injuries that plagued his teammates throughout the year. December 22, the final game before the Christmas break, Sandelin went for a hit on a West Kelowna defender in the corner, but missed and fell shoulder first into the boards.
“I was given the option of finishing the game or not from the coaches but I didn’t want to just bail out on the guys,” Sandelin said. “I didn’t feel great when I came back but it was nice to just finish that game and get out of there with a win.”
Sure enough, following the Christmas break Sandelin missed the first seven games of the new year recovering from the injury, but didn’t miss a beat after coming back as he recorded 14 points over the final 13 regular season games.
His production helped the Vees clinch their eighth-straight Interior Division title, though as fans in Penticton know it came down to the wire. The division wasn’t clinched until the final game of the regular season, a 4-0 win over the Salmon Arm Silverbacks at home. That night was one of the many moments Sandelin will always remember about his time in Penticton.
“Having it come down to the final game, winning it the way we did and it being Fred’s 500thwin,” Sandelin said. “That and parents weekend this past year, having my mom there and having her see me score two game-winning goals was really special. I felt like I always had some extra jump whenever they were there watching me.”
Sandelin was named the first star of the both games that weekend, scoring twice and adding an assist on Friday against Salmon Arm and scoring the overtime winner against the Trail Smoke Eaters the very next night.
The goal of every junior hockey player is to win a championship, and Sandelin was unable to live out that dream during his time in Penticton.
“We knew we were in for a dogfight with the way Vandekamp’s teams play,” Sandelin said. “I don’t think some people really understood the fact that team wasn’t as bad as their record showed. They lost a ton of one-goal games this season. They deserve a lot of credit for the way they played in that series. I know we had a lot more zone time than they did but at the end of the day it’s about how many pucks you put into the net and we didn’t score as much as we needed to.”
The loss was shocking and difficult to accept for everyone with ties to the Vees organization, and understandably more so for the players in the locker room after the final buzzer.
“It was just tough to wrap your head around it,” Sandelin said. “You don’t come to Penticton without wanting to play for something bigger. You just couldn’t believe it was going to end the way it did. Even now I still wish we were playing games and I miss being around the rink.”
Despite not achieving his goal of helping the Vees to another championship, Sandelin won’t let that get in the way of all the good memories he made during his two years in Penticton.
“I really can’t say enough about the fans and the people in that town,” Sandelin reminisced. “They care so much about us and that means a lot. Knowing you have an entire town and community behind you is second to none. I just wish we could have brought something back for them. My billet family was unbelievable, there’s no way I can explain how great they were to me. It was really sad leaving them my last day in town because they did so much for me with my parents not around.”
Sandelin now turns his attention to the offseason, which will be spent largely around rehabbing the shoulder injury suffered before Christmas he didn’t fully recover from. He was able to enjoy the incredible atmosphere of watching his dads Bulldogs win another NCAA Championship, however.
“That was pretty special, being able to be there for him,” Sandelin said. “Now that I’m older I can appreciate just how hard he works. I can’t say enough about how hard he works and how proud I am to have him as a dad. I really look forward to going against him and hopefully getting a couple wins against him.”
Sandelin will be much closer to home for the next four years as he’ll suit up for the Minnesota State Mavericks in Mankato, but he’ll never forget his home away from home in the South Okanagan.
It’s safe to the Vees faithful won’t forget him either.