Fred Harbinson eyes well up as he speaks about the Penticton Vees team he led this BCHL campaign.
“I love them. That’s it,” said the head coach, who downed some water as he composed himself after the Vees Game 7 loss to the Trail Smoke Eaters in the Interior Division semifinal.
After an estimated 250-man games lost this season due to injuries and players leaving temporarily to attend various elite Hockey Canada events, to say it’s been a rollercoaster of a season is an understatement.
“We have been through a lot. It’s a tight-knit group. People don’t realize you are together from September to basically April here, we wanted to make it to May but we didn’t, and for some of us we have been together for a couple of years so it’s hard.”
Harbinson said in advance of getting ready for the Game 7 battle that on Sunday he was looking over the program’s accomplishments. In the past seven years they have raised 21 banners between division championships, league and further. Players like Taylor Ward, Owen Sillinger, Chris Klack and Jonny Tychonick have played big roles in those pieces of Vees history that hang in the South Okanagan Events Centre rafters.
“I treat these guys like my own son, my own kids, and the guys that move on know that I will do anything I can for them in hockey and anything else if they ever ask. Today, we got messages again from all kinds of alum. This program is definitely strong and this (loss) is not going to diminish that.”
In the decisive Game 7 on Monday, the Smoke Eaters took a 2-0 lead after a deflected shot left the puck sitting in the slot and was wired into into a gaping cage, the second goal came on the power play. The score became 3-0 after a turnover in front of the Vees net.
“When you get in these moments you can’t make the mistakes that we did. We had an unfortunate bounce that gave them their first goal, then after that we take a too many men on the ice penalty … then a short-handed goal put us in a big hole,” said Harbinson. “I thought our guys fought hard and tried to get back in the game.”
Wyatt Sloboshan got the Vees on the board before the middle frame horn went to make it 3-1. A couple of shots rung off posts for both sides and goals traded in the third, still had the Smokies on top 4-2. Neither squad could win on the road in the first four games of the series, but the Smokies finally found a way to beat the Vees at the SOEC in games five and seven to earn their trip to Wenatchee to play the Wild, who dispatched the Vernon Vipers in seven games, in the Interior Division final.
“It was an absolute war. The series could have gone either way. You have to give Penticton so much credit. They played hard and rebounded so many times against us and never made it easy on us,” said Smoke Eaters coach Cam Keith. “It was just a great series. We both knew it could have gone either way and at times we got some lucky bounces.”