Despite a stunning first-round playoff exit last season, you can bet the Penticton Vees will once again be the team with the target on their chests in 2019-20.
That’s simply reality for the B.C. Hockey League’s and arguably the country’s flagship Junior-A franchise faces on a seemingly annual basis.
The Vees neither chase nor run from the notoriety. Year in, year out they go about their business and ice a team capable of contending for league and national championships. Obviously it doesn’t always happen, but they always give themselves a chance.
This season, the Vees are giving themselves a big chance and many of the other 16 teams in the BCHL and 130-plus teams across the country are enviously taking notice.
President, GM and head coach Fred Harbinson, entering his 12th season of a wildly successful tenure, is clearly leaving no stone unturned as he looks to build a team capable of doing things comparable to that of the record-smashing, national-championship team of 2012.
Much can happen between the first week of August and the final week of May, but it’s clear Harbinson and the Vees are on a mission after the shocking conclusion to 2018-19 in the wake of yet another magnificent regular season.
Motivation is a powerful tool.
Without delving into each individual part, the makeup of the roster tells you all you need to know about Penticton’s intentions in 2019-20: It’s a veteran group with the maximum six 20-year-olds and 11 19-year-olds making up what is currently a 21-man roster. They can add one more body to reach the maximum of 22.
There is just one 17-year-old and no 16-year-olds, unlike in past seasons when Harbinson felt compelled to give talented, but unseasoned youngsters the chance to develop on the fly in a very difficult league.
Now, the Vees do have some highly-regarded rookies such as Tristan Amonte, Liam Malmquist and their lone 17-year-old, defenceman, Scott Gilowski, but this is by and large a veteran team - big, fast, skilled and deep led by the likes of Philadelphia Flyers 2018 first-round draft pick Jay O’Brien that has been assembled to win, and win now.
There is no predicting how long it may take for Harbinson and his staff to mold this group into a cohesive unit, but this team is loaded for bear at every position. It would be nice to win an unprecedented ninth straight Interior Division pennant, but it’s a group that’s been built to hopefully deliver the goods for the three months that follow Game 58.
We shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking there won’t be significant plot twists along the way. The road to a championship at this level is often fraught with peril.
Even if we can presume this team will be as good as the sum of its parts, you can build depth, but you can never predict health. An injury or two to a key piece – as we’ve seen here in the past – can have devastating effects.
And then there is the BCHL, which is traditionally the premier Junior-A league in the country. Clubs like Wenatchee and Vernon in the powerhouse Interior Division; Victoria, Powell River and Chilliwack in the Coastal Conference, are consistently strong programs. And there are always surprises, a perfect example being the Prince George Spruce Kings who won last year’s BCHL title and came within a goal of winning the RBC Cup.
It is never easy getting out of this league – the Vees have won it four times in 11 seasons under Harbinson – and this year will likely be no different.
You’ve got to win four best-of-sevens to win the league, and another best-of-five against the Alberta champ just to get to the RBC, which is a crapshoot of a tournament against largely unknown entities with a round-robin format and a perilous single-knockout semifinal and final.
Hockey aficionados always proclaim the Stanley Cup is the hardest trophy to win in pro sports. That may be so, but getting to and winning an RBC Cup may be the hardest at any other level of team sport.
So much needs to go your way to be the last team standing out of the 130 that start the season in September.
Along with all the controllable factors, any player or coach will tell you that you also need a little luck. The Vees, for all the wins and banners and trophies they’ve accumulated in the 11 years under Harbinson, certainly could have had more than the one RBC with some better fortune along the way.
Maybe this is the year.
It’s only the beginning of August, but there is an awful lot to be excited about with this hockey club.
As the warm nights turn to cold, and back to warm again, we can dare to dream.
FLAMES: The Penticton Flames captured their first Thompson Okanagan Junior Lacrosse League title in 19 years, but their season is not over.
The Flames have been idle for a few weeks while the B.C. Junior B Tier 1 league wraps up its playoffs. The Flames will play the winner for the provincial championship.
Since it is a 10-team league compared to just the three in the TOJLL, the playoffs obviously take a little longer.
Currently the No. 3 seed Delta Jr. Islanders lead the No. 1 seed Coquitlam Adanacs 2-1 with Game 4 of the best-of-5 championship series scheduled for last night (Thursday) in Coquitlam.
If a Game 5 is needed, it goes Sunday, also in Coquitlam. So the Flames will know their opponent by the end of the weekend at the latest.
It was a breakthrough season for the Flames and they could certainly put a huge cherry on top by winning a provincial title. Coach Kevin Thompson and his staff are no doubt doing all they can to keep the team sharp during the layoff.
We should know the exact dates and locations for the series shortly.
BASEBALL: It was terrific to see 18-and-under AAA baseball return to Penticton after a lengthy absence and the Penticton Tigers certainly have not dropped the ball in their first season back in a very good B.C. league.
The Tigers, coached by Aqil Samuel, fashioned a splendid 23-15 record and qualified for the playoffs/provincial AAA championships next weekend in Victoria.
The team, built on a strong foundation of pitching, closed out the season with seven straight wins and nine of their last 10. They will finish either fifth or sixth in the 14-team league, depending on how the final few regular-season games shake down over the final week.
They will certainly be going into the playoffs on a high, where they’ll need to be at their best against powerhouse teams such as Cowichan Valley Mustangs (33-5), North Fraser Nationals (31-5) and Vancouver Island Mariners (27-11).
As the saying goes, “Go get ‘em Tigers!”
David Crompton is a sports reporter at the Penticton Herald.