After a stunning first-round exit from last year’s playoffs, Fred Harbinson and the Penticton Vees have waited a long time to play a game that matters in the standings.
That moment arrives Friday night as Penticton plays the first of back-to-back games against the Trail Smoke Eaters at the Trail Memorial Centre.
“We’ve definitely been looking forward to playing for real,” said Harbinson, the Vees president, GM and head coach. “You’re not going to win or lose the division on the first weekend, but you can start making progress in a process that we hope takes us into May (of 2020).”
The Vees went a perfect 6-0 in the pre-season, re-tooling the lineup that has just eight players returning from the team that lost 4-2 to Cowichan in the first round of the playoffs.
The Vees did win an eighth straight Interior pennant, but faltered down the stretch before losing in the first round for the first time in Harbinson’s 12-year tenure behind the bench.
“Obviously there were some things that went against us and some things that I didn’t like (last season),” said Harbinson. “We’ve made some major changes and I really like this group … their demeanour, attitude and the way they practice.
“The test comes when you face a bit of adversity, whether it’s injuries or losing a few games in a row. That will be our job as a staff to help them through it, but we have guys who are driven and determined to win this year and I have no doubt they’ll battle through the tough times. I just feel this is going to be a very enjoyable group to work with.”
The Vees are an older, more experienced and dynamic team this year with NHL draft picks centre Jay O’Brien and defenceman Cade Webber, and fourth-year veteran captain David Silye highlighting a deep and talented lineup.
“I think it was more important to be a little older as a team than last year,” said Harbinson. “Some things really fell into place for us in the off-season. A kid like (forward Alex) DiPaolo has been huge for us after getting him in a trade for (Massimo) Rizzo.
“I like our make-up and our experience up and down the lineup.”
And for the first time in recent memory the Vees are – touch wood – completely healthy to start the season.
“We got a full group of 22 guys all capable of playing regularly,” said Harbinson. “A couple of guys will have to sit out each night but the plan is to hopefully get everyone in there at some point in these two games in Trail.
“Both goalies (veteran Derek Krall and rookie Yaniv Perets) will probably get a game, too. Our goaltending was real good in the pre-season.”
Harbinson said the team wants to be above .500 after the challenging six-game stretch of road games in the first three weeks that also takes them to Merritt, Prince George, Cowichan Valley and Nanaimo.
“It’s a real tough start but I’m confident these guys are ready for anything thrown their way,” said Harbinson.
It starts with Trail, who are led by arguably the best player in the BCHL in centre Kent Johnson.
“They’re an older team, too, they’ve got depth and scoring up and down the lineup and quality goaltenders,” said Harbinson.
ICE CHIPS: Both Vees games in Trail will start at 7 p.m. and will be broadcast live on AM-800 radio and HockeyTV.com. The pre-game show starts at 6:40 p.m. with the new voice of the Vees, Trevor Miller, who replaces Craig Beauchemin in the booth... The Vees home opener is Friday, Sept. 27 against the West Kelowna Warriors at the South Okanagan Events Centre. Contact director of ticketing & merchandise Laura Carleton for information on season tickets and watching the Vees live this season… In other games involving Interior teams Friday night, Vernon travels to West Kelowna and Wenatchee goes to Merritt. On Saturday, Wenatchee is in West Kelowna in a 6 p.m. start, then West Kelowna visits Salmon Arm on Sunday afternoon.