Despite a season that will go down as one of the strangest and most challenging in B.C. Hockey League history, the Penticton Vees were able to pull some positives out of the 2020-21 year.
The club wrapped up their shortened 20-game “pod” season Sunday, May 9 with a 3-1 victory over the Cranbrook Bucks following another win Saturday over the Trail Smoke Eaters.
There will be no playoffs this year due to the current provincial health orders.
The BCHL’s pod season was announced in March as a way to get teams playing under the provincial health restrictions. Sixteen BCHL teams were split into five pods in five different cities where the teams from each respective pod played each other multiple times without travelling.
There were almost too many unique challenges to count this season, said Vees head coach, general manager and president Fred Harbinson in an interview with the Western News.
At first, there were troubles getting players across the border due to travel restrictions, then quarantines for players and staff. For a while, older players were restricted from playing or practising with the team until an exception to provincial health restrictions was made. There was a positive case of COVID-19 within the organization, and a large chunk of time spent wondering if the team would even get play games at all.
These are only a handful of the challenges Harbinson rattled off, making it easy to see why the organization is extremely proud of its players and everyone with the organization for just getting through the season, let alone being as successful on the ice as they were.
Vees forward Tristan Amonte remembers the period of time after Christmas when there was no timeline for a return to play and half the team wasn’t allowed to practice due to being over 18 as the most difficult of the year.
“At that point we were all very hopeless, like ‘there’s no way we’re gonna play games,’” Amonte said. “That was definitely the hardest part of the season.”
In the Penticton pod, Cranbrook and Trail were the only two teams the Vees played games against.
The Vees went on to dominate their two opponents, finishing the pod season with the best record in the BCHL at 18-1-0-1 and a goals against average of 1.15 goals per game.
Combined with their record from the Okanagan Cup tournament that saw the Vees crowned champions in November 2020, the Vees finished the year with a cumulative record of 31-2-0-1 and a total goals against average of 1.35.
Harbinson said the Vees impressive season on the ice is a testament to his club’s commitment to playing hard at both ends of the ice.
“It would be one thing for us to win games and score goals but when you’re not technically playing for a real championship, the fact we were able to play so disciplined away from the puck and hold teams to under a goal and a half per game… that’s never been seen before,” Harbinson said.
“The fact that all our guys were so committed to playing hard when the games didn’t mean much… we’re really proud of our guys for that.”
I have had the privilege of coaching many great teams, none of which had to endure what this group was subjected to the last 9 months yet they represented Our City & Team with Pride
31-2-0-1 giving up 1.35 goals per gm
You Are & Always will be Champions in my mind Great Job Boys!
— Fred Harbinson (@FredHarbinson) May 10, 2021
While pod play wasn’t exactly everything players are used to in a normal season, Amonte said the team was just thankful to get any game time at all.
“We’ll take any opportunity that we can get to play,” said Amonte, who will play next season with Boston University in the NCAA.
“The boys were obviously fired up; it sucks not playing for a trophy, that’s what you want to do every year but obviously this year is a little different and I think we made the best of our opportunities.”
Naturally, goaltending played a big part in the Vees allowing so few goals against this year. Harbinson praised goaltender Kaeden Lane for his performance in his first season with the Vees. The 19-year-old finished pod play with a 15-1-0-0 record, 1.13 goals against average, .951 save percentage and five shutouts.
As a returning player, Harbinson will look to Lane to continue his strong play in net next year. “It was a great snapshot for us to see what to expect out of him for next year. He knows he can be an elite goalie in this league,” Harbinson said. “We’ve had a long line of outstanding goaltenders that have come through this program and gone on to do great things after and I think Kaeden’s another one of those goaltenders.”
Lane will be one of eight or nine returning players for the Vees next season. Harbinson is hopeful that next year will resemble some sort of normalcy for the league, but much of that hope hinges on one thing: getting people vaccinated.
Harbinson said his message to the people of Penticton and beyond is “get vaccinated as soon as you can.”
“We need the community to go out and get vaccinated,” he said. “If everybody goes and gets vaccinated when it’s their time and doesn’t worry about what vaccine is in front of them then I can’t understand why there wouldn’t be the ability to have fans back in the building and move on with life.”
Even though it’s now been over a year since the Vees last played a game in front of their fans at the South Okanagan Events Centre, Harbinson said he knows they’re still out there supporting the team from home and looking forward to getting back to the rink.
“We knew, we could still feel that they were following through all the different platforms, we could tell that they were still definitely behind us and that’s why we played as hard as we did.”