Over 1,300 kilometres away from Penticton (1,389 to be precise) is Humboldt, Sask.
It’s home to the two-time RBC Cup champion Broncos, hosts of the junior A national championship.
The Penticton Vees, Canada’s No. 1 ranked team, squares off against the Soo Thunderbirds (ranked No. 8) in their first game at the national championship.
Troy Stecher, the Vees assistant captain, expects to feel nervous prior to the 2 p.m. puck drop.
“Right now you don’t really think about it too much,” said Stecher. “Just excited and going to enjoy the moment.”
The Richmond native said to accomplish their goal they have to stick to their plan and be disciplined. That’s something the co-MVP for last year’s playoffs learned against the Brooks Bandits during the Doyle Cup.
“Game 3 we had a lead and gave it up. We were undisciplined,” he said. “I take responsibility for one of those penalties. It kind of cost us. That’s a learning curve. We know that’s unacceptable but it’s just going to make us better in the long run.”
Stecher feels he has played well this post season. His focus has been on strong play in his zone, while allowing partner Mike Reilly to help create offence. However, he has generated offense as well, collecting two goals and 10 points in 15 games and adding another three points in five Doyle Cup games.
“It’s kind of my responsibility on our unit to stay back and let him have freedom,” said Stecher. “We read off each other really well. He’s fine with that, I’m fine with that. Anything to win a national championship is going to help our team out.”
Reilly said for the Vees to return to Penticton with the RBC Cup, they have to keep playing the way they have.
“That has been our goal since day 1,” said Reilly. “We definitely need to keep the momentum going from the playoffs that we just had against Brooks. I think we have the team to do it and the depth.”
Having won a under-18 Tier 1 national championship with Shattuck St. Mary’s, Reilly believes that experience will help him during the RBC Cup.
“It’s a lot of hard work. You go through a lot of up and downs,” he said. “It was a good test and it will be a good test in Humboldt,” he said. “Definitely to win two years in a row would be unbelievable.”
Reilly said they faced adversity when they lost starter Michael Garteig for six weeks and his brother Connor for the rest of the season. He credited Chad Katunar for stepping up in Garteig’s place.
Grant Nicholson thinks about the possibility of winning. Following each game, he talks with his father Bob Nicholson, president of Hockey Canada.
“He calls me after every game. He just says capture the moment, you may not be part of this again,” said Nicholson, whose father has made a couple of trips to Penticton to watch their playoff run. “Take all in that you can.”
Up to this point, Nicholson said it’s been a great experience. He’s also grown as a player and learned from watching Reilly, Steven Fogarty and Mario Lucia, the three NHL draft picks on the team.
“There are some pretty amazing players on our team that you can just improve when you are playing with them,” he said. “I just see what it takes. How they got there to know if I can make that next step.”
Ensuring the Vees are ready, coach-GM Fred Harbinson and his staff will be make sure the players learn their opponents with game film.
“A big thing is you have to get yourself in the playoffs,” said Harbinson, when asked about strong starts. “You can’t be the fifth team that gets eliminated. Last thing you want to do is get behind the eight ball. I think they were conditioned for this moment.”
One thing that will happen in Humboldt is that Reilly and his teammates will know more about the prairie community then they did before. He admitted to not knowing anything.
“I know that Gervais is pretty close,” he said of his teammates hometown of Battleford, located three hours northwest of Humboldt. “Bryce said he likes it a lot. He’s probably a little biased because he’s from there but he said it’s a nice area. I think we’re all going to enjoy it. Maybe go bowling or something. I’m guessing Bryce knows where some stuff is.”
Following their game against the Thunderbirds, the Vees will play the host Humboldt Broncos (ranked No. 3), who won the Anavet Cup at 6:30 p.m. PST on May 6. On May 8, the Vees face the No. 7 ranked Woodstock Slammers at 6:30 p.m. and conclude their round-robin schedule with the No. 9 ranked Portage Terriers also at 6:30 p.m.
The four remaining clubs will face off in the semifinals, which will be held May 12. The championship final will be played Sunday, May 13 and televised on TSN. Games can be viewed online by going to http://hockeycanada.fasthockey.com/login.php. Check www.pentictonwesternnews.com for RBC Cup coverage.