News out of Toronto that Penticton Vees star defenceman Ryan O’Connell is out for the season has left head coach and general manager Fred Harbinson with two choices.
“You can either lay down and quit or you do like any other family would do when there is a crisis or sickness, you fight,” said Harbinson after learning O’Connell was done. “There’s no quit in our locker room, there’s no quit in our staff, I’ve never thought that way in my life and in my mind I still believe we can win it all. This will just make the whole thing a lot sweeter when we do.”
O’Connell suffered a broken arm while at the World Junior A Challenge in mid-December which was initially expected to keep him out of action for four to six weeks.
“He’s (O’Connell) having surgery right now as we speak,” said Harbinson, Tuesday afternoon. “He needed to have another cast put on but was having trouble seeing his doctor in Ottawa so the Leafs (who picked O’Connell in the 2017 NHL entry level draft) said we’ll get him over here (Toronto) put a new cast on today and fly him to Penticton tonight and then they called two hours ago and said we’ve got some bad news.
“They couldn’t figure out how the first doctor would have missed it, it’s a displaced fracture which means he’s done.”
O’Connell joins another Vee’s star, captain Grant Cruikshank who is on the sidelines for the rest of the season after suffering a broken ankle in the Dec. 8 game against the West Kelowna Warriors.
“We talked about it as a team today, nobody’s going to feel sorry for us so we better not start feeling sorry for ourselves,” said Harbinson. “We got to find ways to be harder, to be smarter to be whatever. There’s other guys who are going to have to pull on the rope a little harder, that’s just the way it is.”
With the Vees set to host the Prince George Spruce Kings for the first time this season Friday and the Wenatchee Wild here Saturday, they will also still be without the services of Chris Klack (upper body) for at least another week and Cassidy Bowes (broken arm) few weeks.
As well, Harbinson learned Vees scoring leader, Owen Sillinger, will be lost from the squad for the next two games following an incident at the end of the game Saturday against the Wild which the Vees staff say started out as charging penalty and was later changed to a hit from behind with an automatic suspension. The Vees lost their road trip games against the Wild on the weekend with Sillinger scoring all the goals (four) over the two games.
“It’s been crazy, last year we had 73 man games lost through injury or suspension, 49 of those games were by one guy, Gabe Bast and now this year, going into the weekend were at a 106,” said Harbinson. “You know Grant Cruikshank and O’Connell won’t play anymore, as long as nothing else happens we’re going to hit over 160 man games lost this year which is unheard of, and again, all of our top players.
“I warned our fan base a month ago that it might get harder before it gets easier.”
About the fans, some of who he was critical of after a December loss, he still believes they are the best in junior hockey.
“They have every right to do what they want but sometimes when things get hard you find out whose going to stand next to you and be there with you,” said Harbinson. “Hopefully they will support for the players sake but I can’t worry about that, I’ve got some 20-plus guys that are ready to fight.
“I’m going to tell you right now, I guarantee this by March 2 our team is going to be a tough team to play against. Not the team people want to play against.”
There is some good news on the horizon with the return of blueliner Jonny Tychonick who was also at the World Junior A Challenge. Plus there is the addition of new Vees. The 1998-born Marcus Mitchell who was obtained in a trade from the Salmon Arm Silverbacks for Joe Leahy and Michael Campoli who had been with the Boston College Eagles.
Both are expected to suit up for this weekend’s games along with Ocean Wiesblatt, formerly of the Brooks Bandits of the Alberta Junior Hockey League who has also joined the team.
The Vees coach is hoping to get back player cards for Cruikshank and O’Connell, but with the Jan. 10 player deadline looming, finding additional talent won’t be easy.
“I don’t have the magic wand to pull something off at the last hour but you never know,” he said. “It’s difficult for the guys today but I think we’ve got a group that’s going to fight, I really do. This might not be an easy ride that we’ve had over the last few years but I’m going to say it, at the end of the year I believe it’s going to be the same result.”
Friday’s game against the Spruce Kings begins at 7 p.m. with a 6 p.m. start against the Wild on Saturday at the South Okanagan Events Centre.