Once the Penticton Vees’ season ended, Fred Harbinson’s phone was ringing with offers.
The University of Wisconsin Badgers men’s hockey program offered him an associate coaching position with the plan for Harbinson, the Vees’ president, general manager and coach, to eventually take over the program. He decided to turn it down.
“This is where we want to be,” said Harbinson.
When asked what his dream job is, Harbinson said, “My dream job is right here right now.”
However, Harbinson, the all-time wins leader (332) in the Penticton junior A franchises history, said if he could snap his finger and coach in the NHL, then it’s something he would do.
“There is a lot of different factors that go into that,” he said. “I have a family that enjoys being here right now. Some day, and it probably won’t be that far off, that I will take another (job.)”
“You have to take a risk sometimes in your life,” said Harbinson. “I took a risk coming here. When I left college hockey (he was an assistant coach with the St. Cloud State Huskies) to come here, it was a risk. You’re in Memorial Arena. Three years earlier the team was basically ready to fold. (Former Vees owner) Scott Carter, their group took over and did a magnificent job over the three years prior to me coming here. There was still a lot of unknowns. I took a risk and it’s obviously turned out extremely well for everybody, especially for our family.”
Harbinson also loves working for Vees owner Graham Fraser, who he said is a “great guy to work with.” The Calgary native said at some point he will have to take a risk and challenge himself with something else. Right now though, he feels he has something special with the Vees.
“Yes I’m coaching junior A hockey, but I’m coaching some of the best players in North America,” said Harbinson. “Better than a lot of other teams get a chance to work with. We coach and work in one of the best facilities in North America. I work for one of the best owners in junior hockey. We’re compensated very well here as a family. It’s hard to leave. It’s not something that we have to leave.”
With four years left on his contract, Harbinson, who has brought five Interior Division championships, three Fred Page Cup championships, a Western Canada Cup and one RBC Cup national championship, still has things he wants to accomplish. Just as players do, Harbinson has small goals for himself.
“I guess my goal right now is to try and win a fourth Fred Page Cup,” he said. “No coach has ever done that.”
As serious as Harbinson is seen on the bench, there is another side to him.
Steve Cawley, assistant coach and assistant general manager of the Vees, who has worked with Harbinson for five seasons, said that some people might not see how he has features of his three-year-old daughter Hailey in him.
“On the bench he clearly comes across as a determined, hard-nosed coach who has the Italian blood that pulses through his body in games,” said Cawley. “As soon as his daughter comes in before games or right after, I think the bear becomes a teddy bear in a heck of a hurry. The armour sets in a hurry around his daughter.”
Harbinson has also been deeply impacted by team pastor Jamie Weberg, who is battling a bone cancer that is incurable, but treatable.
“He cares a lot about Jaime,” said Cawley. “Whether it’s the fundraising that you’ve seen the team do, whether it’s some of the stuff you haven’t seen going on in the background. Everyone in the organization clearly loves and cares for Jamie. He’s such a great guy. Fred’s heart is a lot bigger than people would ever believe.”
Harbinson also enjoys joking around and Cawley said nothing is sacred with the coaching staff.
“If you put yourself out there in a situation where you look a little silly, clearly the coaches room is going to be all over you,” said Cawley. “You are going to get it from the other guys in a hurry.”
Cawley was asked if Harbinson got ribbed when a photo of him dancing during the Harlem Ambassadors charity basketball game was published in the Penticton Western News.
“We all assumed that was something he did at least twice a week given that he’s so close to six feet tall,” said Cawley.
One thing the trio always joke about is that an HBO series could be done based on the Vees.
“Everyday seems to create a different episode of what we have gone through,” said Cawley. “There is so many of them. We literally think that HBO could have a sitcom. It would be extremely popular.”
And the players have seen that side.
“He liked to joke around,” said Cody DePourcq, who just completed a four-year career with his hometown team. “He knew as a coach when to joke around and when to be serious. He was a great guy to be around and a great guy for all of us to be around. He’s a good person.”