Although it ended bitter-sweetly, players with the Penticton Vees are still proud of the season they turned out this year.
First in the interior division for the 2018-19 season, the Vees picked up 37 regular game wins with only 16 losses, garnering 79 points. This had the team sitting third overall in the league heading into playoffs, where the Vees would suffer some heartbreaking losses and ultimately get knocked out in the first round to the second-last team in the league and true underdogs, the Cowichan Valley Capitals.
“Obviously it’s tough with the way it ended, no one expected that at all. So that’s definitely hard for us,” said team captain Massimo Rizzo. “But we definitely had a great regular season. We faced a lot of adversity and came together as a group and bonded and enjoyed it and we were able to win the division.”
The Vees were plagued by injuries throughout the regular season and that definitely took its toll on the team.
“It’s tough when your guys go down, nobody wants to see that at all, and you feel bad for them but you have to regroup and it makes you work harder to come together even more and push through that kind of stuff,” said Rizzo.
Cassidy Bowes was one of the team’s key players who spent part of the season on the injured list. The forward felt he could have done better on a personal level this season but was happy to be a part of a strong team nonetheless.
“I had a tough year with injuries and an injury before the year even started and a couple surgeries in the summer,” explained Bowes. “I’m proud of how the team did (this season), not so much on a personal level, but the team rallied most of the year. Especially with injuries, we had six guys on the injuries list and a bunch playing through injuries.
“I know it’s not the outcome we wanted but it’s still pretty incredible that we still managed to win the Interior Division. So it’s good that we got that, but obviously not all we wanted.”
Bowes and Rizzo agree that the players felt pretty down after game six of the first round playoffs that knocked the Vees out this season, but lamented that it’s life and sometimes it doesn’t go as planned.
“We’d be lying if we said we didn’t go into (the playoff round) a little more confident, obviously we were top in the division and they were second-last in the league, so we definitely didn’t think it was going to be as hard of a series as it was,” said Rizzo. “That first game they came into it super hard … and were the underdogs.”
Rizzo said he and the other guys pulled up their socks the rest of the series, but no matter how hard they tried it just didn’t turn out the way they wanted.
“Not even just in hockey, but a life lesson really is that you can’t take anything for granted. They played good but we still should have been able to beat them. So you have to just come out prepared to play every single game,” said Bowes.
It’s arguable that Penticton Vees goalie Jack LaFontaine was one of the players who did just that, turning out an impressive season with 1,169 saves in the regular season equalling a 0.923 per cent save percentage. In playoffs, LaFontaine saved 145 out of 157 shots, equalling a comparable 0.924 per cent save average.
“This has always been my bench mark for what I feel like I can do out on the ice,” said LaFontaine. “I’ve had seasons like this in the past and I feel like I have worked my way up to playing like this. I’ve had help from the phenomenal coaching staff.”
This season marks the end of LaFontaine’s junior hockey career. He has mixed feelings about how the season came to an end but, like Rizzo and Bowes, believes there’s something to be learned from it.
“It still hasn’t really sunk in. It’s an awful feeling, to feel like we could have done something special or something more, but I guess that’s life,” said LaFontaine. “Things happen. It’s something that all of us are going to have to live with. But looking at the plus side we locked up the number one spot in our own division.
LaFontaine said he’ll continue to play hockey going forward, having already committed to play at the University of Minnesota starting September 2019. He said one of things he’ll miss most and has cherished is the support of the fans.
“To all of the Vees fans, you guys are the best fans in all of junior hockey. I loved every single minute of playing in front of them,” said LaFontaine.
Rizzo, who is planning to play hockey in North Dakota next season, said he’s thankful for the experience of being a Penticton Vee.
“It’s been an unbelievable two years here. The organization as a whole has treated me unbelievably and the town and the fans were spectacular. We definitely have the best fans in the CJHL and I love their support,” said Rizzo. “Every game it was unquestionably the best in the league. I’m very thankful for my time here and I’m definitely going to miss it.”
Bowes could play for one more season in junior hockey and said he will see how the summer and his training goes. He said he likes the idea of returning so then his junior hockey career doesn’t end on this bitter note.
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