Taylor Ward has played for the Penticton Vees before, but when he pulls that sweater over his head next season, it’s a dream coming true.
“It’s a pretty big accomplishment for myself,” said Ward, played in three regular season and playoff games with the Vees last season as an affiliate player and registered his first junior A goal against West Kelowna. “Growing up so close in Kelowna, every kids dream is to play junior hockey close to home. It’s pretty special.”
Ward won a Canadian Sport School Hockey League championship last year with OHA Prep White and finished second in team scoring with 50 points in 28 games. The 17-year-old forward had a team-best 41 assists and possesses a strong hockey sense. His strong regular season play continued into the playoffs, where he displayed two-way play and helped his team to a Prep Division championship.
Ward said getting games in as an AP gives him confidence, including getting the “nerves out of the way.” Ward, whose father Dixon Ward played over 500 NHL games with Vancouver, Los Angeles, Toronto, Buffalo and the New York Rangers, intends to bring a hard-working presence as well as a 200-foot game to contribute to team success.
What excites Ward, who has caught the eye of several National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I programs, is playing with a returning core, which includes Tyson Jost and Dante Fabbro. The Vees released a statement Monday regarding the star rookies who are considered two of the top ‘98-born players in Canada. Both received heavy interest at the major junior (Jost from the Everett, Fabbro with Seattle) and NCAA level.
Fabbro said he and his family discussed his future and decided that remaining a Vees was best for his NHL draft year and development. He has also had discussions with two NCAA schools and has about three or four that are interested.
“Talking with my family advisor, it was an easy pick with Penticton,” said Fabbro, adding that their recruits is something that gives him excitement for next season.
Like Jost, Fabbro said their playoff run that took them to the RBC national junior A hockey championship was another factor.
“I don’t like losing,” said Fabbro. “Hopefully we can finish it off next year.”
Fabbro excelled on the Vees blueline. The 16-year-old was the third-highest scoring defencemen on the roster recording 33 points in just 44 games. Despite being the Vees youngest rear-guard, Fabbro excelled in the BCHL post-season. He was the highest-scoring defenceman, notching four goals and 15 points in 21 playoff games, helping the Vees capture their second league championship in four years. Fabbro, like Jost, wore the maple leaf at both the World Under-17 Challenge and World Junior A Challenge.
Jost and Fabbro have been projected as first round draft picks in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft by numerous hockey publications.
Also staying put is president, general manager and head coach Fred Harbinson.
“People say what more can I do in Penticton with the Vees? The fact is no matter where I coach it’s my job to have an impact and develop players,” said Harbinson in a team statement. “I have the ability to work with some of the most talented up and coming players in North America right here in Penticton — which is shown when players such as Tyson and Dante choose Penticton as a launching pad to the NHL.
“Every year there are new players and new challenges — there is plenty left to accomplish,” continued Harbinson.
Following Ward to the Vees are fellow OHA products defenceman Griffin Mendel and Sam Jones.
“OHA has been a tremendous partner for the Vees over many years now. We are fortunate to have such a high-performance program so geographically close to the team,” said Harbinson. “We’ve never had so many OHA players join our squad in one year and I believe the pipeline to the Vees in future years looks equally exciting.
With co-captain Cody DePourcq having graduated, the Vees said it’s a priority for them to add more local talent. They want fans to be proud of their local products and the Vees feel they have that in Ward, Mendel and Jones.
Mendel, 16, won the CSSHL Prep Division championship this past spring with Ward. At six-foot-two, defenceman is known for being responsible and intelligent with the ability to play in all situations. The Kelowna product also has a heavy shot from the point. Griffin was a first-round selection in the 2014 WHL Bantam Draft, going 11th overall to the Kootenay Ice. Mendel’s potential has caught the eye of many top NCAA Division l programs, and he appeared in two games this past season as an affiliate player.
Jones, who turns 18 in November, played for OHA Prep Red, in the CSSHL. Jones, who was born in England averaged over a point per-game on the blue-line this past season, amassing 31 points in 28 games. Jones was the highest scoring defenceman on OHA Red and finished second in league scoring. The six-foot-two blue-liner is known as a strong skater with a hard shot from the point. Jones, who has been with the OHA for five seasons, has an upside the Vees like. In 2014-15, Jones played five games as an affiliate player with the Summerland Steam.
On Tuesday, the Vees added offence to their roster with the addition of Chris Gerrie, 19, for defenceman Jarod Hilderman in a deal with the Olds Grizzlys. In 59 Alberta Junior Hockey League games, Gerrie had 25 goals and 61 points, good for sixth in the league. The Red Deer, Alta., product had a breakout rookie campaign two years ago as he was the AJHL’s Rookie of the Year in 2013-2014 after scoring 18 goals and racking up 54 points in 60 games. He garnered national recognition as he was named the CJHL Co-Rookie of the Year. He is committed to Michigan Tech University, the same school current Vees Demico Hannoun and Mitch Newsome will attend.
Hilderman, 18, played two seasons with the Vees after coming from Notre Dame College in Saskatchewan. Hilderman broke into the BCHL as a 16-year-old collecting eight points in 45 regular season games while patrolling the blue line. He had another three points in 11 playoff games. This season, the Minnesota-Duluth commit had six assists in 49 regular season games. In the post-season, he scored once and finished with seven points in 32 playoff games helping the Vees capture the Fred Page Cup and Western Canada Cup. Hilderman also played on Team West at the CJHL Top Prospects game in January.
Vees notes: The Lethbridge Hurricanes of the WHL announced on their website that Vees affiliate player Jordy Bellerive has signed with the club.