Canada’s No. 1 ranked Junior A team – the Penticton Vees – grabbed national headlines when they set a CJHL record with 42 straight wins and a BCHL record with 54 wins and 110 points.
After winning the Fred Page Cup and Doyle Cup, the Vees have their eyes on the big prize – the RBC Cup.
For the Vees, a long journey began at training camp where the goal was to build a team that would be able to make the trip to Humboldt and compete at the National Junior A Championship.
During the regular season the Vees dominated, averaging 5.57 goals per game and shattering the New Westminster Royals’ 29-game win streak mark from 1989-90.
“With the 42-game win streak, I think our team is conditioned to be able to win those one-shot games when all the chips are down,” said Vees head coach and general manager Fred Harbinson.
With only a few games left in the regular season, the Vees sustained two heavy blows to their lineup as No. 1 goaltender Michael Garteig suffered a lower body injury and forward Connor Reilly, who was leading the team in scoring at the time with 35 goals and 86 points, went down for the rest of the season with a knee ailment.
Reilly’s jersey is always with the team as an added motivator and the players have dog tags with their team logo and his name on it.
With backup Chad Katunar making key saves when needed, the Vees downed the Chilliwack Chiefs in the BCHL’s opening round in six games.
Vees rookie forward Grant Nicholson, son of Hockey Canada president/CEO Bob Nicholson, said the team was a little nervous against the Chiefs.
“We were tied 2-2 and everyone gripped their sticks a little tighter,” recalled Nicholson. “Coach Harbinson came in and told us to calm down and have some fun.”
Harbinson said that meeting was the turning point of their playoffs.
“The biggest inhibitor for athletes is the fear of losing and the fear of failure,” he said. “If we lose in the first round, nobody is going to blame them. They are going to blame me. From there on we have only lost two games.”
The Vees pushed aside the Merritt Centennials in five games and then swept the Powell River Kings to win the BCHL championship. Harbinson said as funny as it seemed, the Kings were their toughest opponent.
“Every game was real tight,” said Harbinson. “It could have gone either way in a few of them. I think the big difference in that one was in Game 3 – coming from behind in the last 10 minutes of the game. Down two goals, tying it with the net empty and then winning it in overtime. It changed that series.”
The final Doyle Cup series had the Vees facing the Brooks Bandits of the Alberta Junior Hockey League. After winning the opening two games in Brooks – during which Garteig returned to the ice – the series shifted to Penticton, where the Vees suffered their fourth playoff loss in Game 3. The Vees regrouped and outscored the Bandits 12-3 in the next two games to clinch the series.
Vees defenceman Mike Reilly, a Columbus Blue Jackets draft pick, said it has been a long process but explained why they succeed.
“There are a lot of skilled forwards that aren’t just willing to rely on their skill, they compete really hard, they work hard after practice,” said Reilly. “We definitely worked for this all year and definitely the opportunity is right in front of us.”