Vees thrive under pressure heading into RBC Cup

B.C. Hockey League playoffs, WCC have Vees ready for RBC Cup

Everything the Penticton Vees have gone through at this point should help them at the RBC Cup.

The Penticton Vees punched their ticket to the Royal Bank Cup in Cobourg, Ont., after defeating the Chilliwack Chiefs 3-2 on May 7 to earn the Western Canada Cup (WCC)’s second berth to the national championship. Having played in the WCC format will help the group, especially the players are playing in their first national championship. The only Vees to have experienced competing for the big championship are defenceman Gabe Bast in 2012 and Duncan Campbell, who played in the Memorial Cup last year with the Brandon Wheat Kings.

Campbell said having that familiarity from another tournament and format is big. The Vees have an idea of the record they need to move on. Bast shrugged it off as another tournament, just another game.

“The stage is a lot more,” said Bast.

No kidding.

“We’re excited. We’re motivated,” said Bast. “We’ve got some unfinished business.”

Last year the Vees were knocked out of the B.C. Hockey League playoffs in the second round and the year before, lost in the semifinals of the RBC Cup in Portage, Man. The Vees last won the RBC Cup in 2012.

Fans would be ecstatic to celebrate a national championship during a parade on Main Street.

When asked, defenceman Mitch Meek said their previous experience helps. Because of that, they are used to the pressure when a team is vying for a national championship. Meek described the group as a competitive bunch.

“We really bring our A game and are competitive,” said Meek, who is playing in his first national championship tournament. “Pressure situations are kind of what we strive for. We are going to try to bring that in every game.”

The question, however, is whether they can still bring their best when everything isn’t on the line.

“We definitely feel we’re capable of it. There is going to be parts of games when you are not playing your best,” said Meek. “That is when you have to bounce back. It’s a lot mental. I believe in this bunch and we are feeling confident going into the Royal Bank Cup. We’re excited. We’re hungry. We’re not done yet.”

How will the young guys perform, specifically affiliate players Massimo Rizzo and Cassidy Bowes. Both performed well for the Vees. Rizzo had a goal and five points in six WCC games, while getting top power play minutes. Bowes was pointless in five games, but was key on the forecheck pressuring defences.

The Vees faced a challenging road to the national championship. They had to win three consecutive games at the WCC to earn another RBC Cup berth. They had to win three games in a row to pull it off. Before that, the Vees played in three Game 7s in the B.C. Hockey League playoffs. There is nothing quite like repeatedly testing yourself in do-or-die situations. Could that prove to be a recipe for success as this group faces its biggest challenge.

The Vees, ranked 17th in the Canadian Junior Hockey League, oppose a familiar foe, the Brooks Bandits, to start the tournament on May 14 at 12:30 p.m. PST.

After that it is the hosts, the Cobourg Cougars on May 15 at 4:30 p.m. The Cougars were knocked out of the OJHL playoffs in the semifinals by the Trenton Golden Hawks (ranked seventh), who the Vees play on May 17 at 12:30 p.m. The Vees’ final round-robin game will be against the Les Cobras de Terrebonne of the Quebec Junior Hockey League. The Cobras are third in the CJHL.

Vees coach-GM Fred Harbinson said they respect but don’t fear their opponents. He has done his homework, speaking to coaches who have faced the other teams. He knows what the Vees are up against.

The good news for the team is it head into the championship healthy, with the exception of defenceman Kenny Johnson who had shoulder surgery before the playoffs. He will travel to Cobourg from his home in Michigan to support his teammates. Harbinson said the players are excited to see him. You have to think that will give them an extra jump.

Games from the RBC Cup can be watched at HockeyCanada.ca/RBCCup; the gold-medal game will be on TSN.

Emanuel Sequeira is the sports editor of the Penticton Western News.