Despite falling one win short of advancing to the RBC Cup national junior A championship, a spirited crowd awaited the Penticton Vees return home on Monday.
A fan screamed as the bus pulled within sight of the South Okanagan Events Centre and the rest flocked into position.
“Win or lose I think they are No. 1 in our hearts,” said Wendy Imhoff, who displayed her support by shaking a cowbell. “They gave us one incredible season. They are a great bunch of guys.”
The Vees lost 2-1 in a double-overtime thriller in the semi finals at Portage La Prairie, Man. to the Carleton Place Canadians.
“I was just sad for the players. Sadder for the players than the fans,” said Imhoff. “They have worked so hard. They have come from behind so many times. I was just heartbroken for them.”
Jean Mitchell, another Vees supporter who follows and interacts with players on Twitter, said it’s always hard to say goodbye after a season ends.
“I’m so glad they are such a great team,” she said. “They got us right into the middle of May. What more could you ask for?”
She too expressed disappointment for the players and added she disagreed with calls made by the officials during the course of the tournament. That includes the referee waiving off what the Vees and their faithful believed was the game winner in the first overtime against the Canadians. Dakota Conroy’s shot was sucked up by Canadians goalie Guillaume Therien, who dropped down to the butterfly position to make the save. The puck then rolled between his legs across the goal line, but the referee had already whistled the play down.
“It hurts for our players. We played our asses off,” said Vees coach-general manager Fred Harbinson shortly after the loss Saturday afternoon. “I thought we had a lot of chances to make it 2-0 and it didn’t happen. They made a play, they are a great team. We scored a goal in the first overtime, unfortunate quick whistle. We have seen that before. It wasn’t intentional. It’s one of those things that happens. They were able to make the last play.”
Vees co-captain Cody DePourcq said it hurt to fall one game short.
“It’s tough. It’s disappointing. I didn’t want to hear about the (finals),” he said. “I didn’t want to watch the game. It was tough being in Portage. Every TV had it. We couldn’t go anywhere without hearing about it. It’s something to lose the way we did in OT and have a goal disallowed. It’s going to hurt for a while. I believe it was supposed to count.”
Vees assistant captain Jack Ramsey said under the circumstances it was tough to lose. However, he was very happy to see the supporters at the SOEC waiting for them.
“It means everything. It’s not fun playing hockey if you have no fans,” he said. “All the emotional support you see on Twitter and Facebook. People call. It’s always nice getting off the ice and getting notifications on Twitter. People telling you good luck the next game. You’re not just playing for your teammates, you’re playing for the whole town.”
Ramsey added it can’t be forgotten that they won the BCHL and Western Canada Cup.
“Those are pretty big things. We definitely didn’t go home empty handed this year,” he said.
The Vees’ national championship hopes were shattered when Canadians forward Jordan Larson buried a rebound over the pad of outstretched Hunter Miska at 3:43. Miska, finished with 38 saves. During the Canadians celebrations, the Hockey Canada web stream showed Miska bent over at the side boards, while Demico Hannoun was low on one knee as his third attempt, with just as many teams, to win his first national championship came up empty.
Tyson Jost gave the Vees a 1-0 lead in the second period. He was able to put away a rebound from a Connor Chartier shot. That lead lasted until two minutes remained in the period when Stephen Baylis picked off a pass from Gabe Bast and skated into the zone before beating Miska with a wrist shot high glove.
In the third period, the Canadians edged the Vees in shots 9-6, however neither could finish on their chances. The Canadians had a glorious chance with an empty net but missed. Their top player Andy Sturtz clocked just under four minutes and it was all on the power play as he was injured the last time the teams met on May 14.
Led by their captains, “each guy left it out there,” said Harbinson.
“Obviously we’re one of the youngest teams in junior hockey,” said Harbinson, whose team was the youngest in the RBC Cup with an average age of 18.4. “The reason we get to play basically until the last day was because of the work ethic, the type of character that we showed.
“Unfortunately the finale of the whole thing is tough to take,” continued Harbinson. “They are a veteran team (Canadians’ average age was 19.1), lost in overtime in the national championship game a year ago. They are a good hockey team.”
Patrick Sexton was named the Vees’ player of the game, while Larson, the overtime hero, earned the honour for the Canadians.
The Canadians moved on to the finals, losing the championship game 5-2 to the Portage Terriers.
On Thursday, the Vees welcome hopeful players to their spring camp until May 24. Players will check in the first day and be put into teams in which they will do fitness tests and a tour of the South Okanagan Events Centre. Games will be played from Friday to Sunday. On Sunday, following each game, the Vees coaching staff will conduct exit interviews. It’s estimated that there will be 120 players and their parents attending. Friday games begin at 9:15 a.m. in the SOEC with the last game played at 3:30 p.m. Saturday starts at 9 a.m. with the final game at 3:15 p.m. and Sunday’s first game is at 8 a.m. with the final game at 11:10 a.m.