In 25 years of coaching hockey Penticton Vees head coach, Fred Harbinson, has never been in a situation like he found himself in on March 12, 2020 — when was he handed the difficult task of telling his team that the BCHL playoffs had been cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Earlier in the day, the team had finished what Harbinson called one of their best practices of the year. The coach would later call the team back to the rink to tell them it would also be their last practice of the year.
“When I first started talking, I think a lot of them thought I was saying that it (the season) was going to be put on hold and as I continued to go on I think it started to sink in that what I was actually saying was that the season was over,” said Harbinson from his Penticton home. “It’s hard because for a lot of them that’s the way their junior hockey career ends and their time in Penticton ends.
“There was a lot of different emotions that went into it. That day was tough.”
The Western News recently caught up with Harbinson to discuss how COVID-19 has impacted the Vees organization and players, the fate of the BCHL amid financial concerns, and how the Vees plan to build for next season.
Harbinson has kept busy recruiting and scouting possible line-up additions for next season, albeit not in person. He’s spent an unprecedented amount of time watching hockey tapes due to the fact that he can no longer view players in person. “We’re still trying to build our roster with the anticipation that we’re going to be playing in the fall,” Harbinson said from his office filled with Vees’ memorabilia.
In addition to scouting potential new players, Harbinson has also made a point to keep in touch with returning players. This week, he reached out to each returning player to make sure everyone is on the same page.
“There’s some different things that have been thrown out there that could create a little bit of confusion about what’s happening next year and I just want to make sure that our guys have the proper message moving forward,” he said.
One area that has presented a unique challenge for Harbinson and his coaching staff has been how to ensure players are keeping in the best shape possible given the time away from the gym and rink.
“That’s one big difference from way back in the day when you had to keep your thumb on them (players) to make sure they’re doing their workouts. Nowadays, these guys all have their own trainers and personal skills coaches and all that stuff but obviously that’s all been put on hold,” said Harbinson.
To combat the lack of resources, assistant coach Matt Fraser put together a workout program which assumed the players had nothing — no weights and no access to a gym.
“Some guys obviously have stuff at their homes but we came up with a workout program that they could all do. So every few weeks we’re monitoring that and trying to switch it up and keep it as interesting as possible but it’s definitely a bigger challenge than what we’ve seen in the past,” said Harbinson.
At the time of the cancellation, Harbinson’s club had just made easy work of the West Kelowna Warriors in the first round of the BCHL playoffs, winning the series in five games. Coming off an impressive 44-12-1-1 regular season, the team was poised to take a legitimate run at the franchise’s 13th Fred Page Cup.
Harbinson, however, refutes that his team’s strong season made the cancellation any harder of a pill to swallow. “All the teams that were left in the playoffs had a chance to win,” said the Vees coach of 13 years. “That’s what makes our league so great right now is the parody of so many teams that can beat each other and in the playoffs, you never know.
“But it did hurt because we had lost early in the playoffs the year before so the whole year we were trying to redeem ourselves and we had a heck of a year.”
Harbinson admits that the 2018-19 Penticton Vees roster had holes that were exploited in the playoffs, despite a successful regular season. But this year he was confident his team had all the right pieces to go on a deep playoff run.
“We had the goaltending, we had a solid defensive core, we could score, and we could play physical. We were a lot like we were in 2017 where we could beat you different ways except we had more talent this year.”
Most importantly, each player on the team was 100 per cent committed no matter their role, said Harbinson.
“Whenever I’ve had championship teams here you have to have that and this year we had that total buy-in,” said the four-time BCHL Championship winner.
With the 2019-20 season officially over, the Penticton Vees organization has shifted gears to preparing for the upcoming season.
However, there is a chance that the league may not look the same once it returns. With the bulk of BCHL profits coming from ticket sales, the league is experiencing financial hardships due to lost revenue from the season’s cancellation. The league recently reached out to the provincial government to request financial help and while unlikely at this time there is concern that some teams may fold.
Harbinson was quick to extinguish these concerns, citing the fact that people have speculated that certain teams could go under for years yet they “always find a way” to survive.
Harbinson thinks the league asking for financial help may have been misconstrued by the public. “Those guys (BCHL commissioner, Steve Hebb and franchise owners) have done a great job of trying to get ahead of things here. It was misinterpreted a bit. They’re trying to get to the government to see if there’s anything we qualify for,” he said.
“A lot of these organizations are more than just a hockey team, they do a lot economically for their communities. There’s a lot of other businesses that are in the same shape; we’re not putting one in front of the other.
“We’re trying to find ways to keep people employed, ways to keep these programs viable not just for the short-term but for the long-term. The truth of the matter is: maybe when it’s all said and done there could be some teams that might need a year but we’re not even close to that yet.
“I think everybody has indicated that they’re going to come back and teams are working along like that’s going to happen.”
Attention advisors, scouts, coaches, No need to call & ask if the BCHL is PLANNING to play this Fall – WE ARE! Our Commish was simply trying to see what Govt Funding was available for our Business; Leagues or Teams that tell you they know the exact start date are simply lying
— Fred Harbinson (@FredHarbinson) May 2, 2020
Lets hope for everyones sake we are back sooner than later; that would signify we are back to a more Normal & Safe way of life which is what really matters. Until then, the BCHL like I imagine every other league on the Planet is Planning for the Future, I cant wait to hit the ice
— Fred Harbinson (@FredHarbinson) May 2, 2020
Looking ahead to the 2020-21 season, Harbinson is confident that his club can once again assemble a strong roster despite losing some key pieces. And the club has begun to put in work to do just that, already bringing in six new players for next season.
There will be a handful of returning players but also a number of key departures from the 2019-20 squad. Integral forwards Danny Weight, Jay O’Brien, Lukas Sillinger, Colton Kalezic and captain David Silye will all be moving on to college hockey next season. Finding replacements for the high-scoring forwards will be one of the Vees’ main off-season priorities, said Harbinson.
The organization has already begun to do so with five new forwards committing to the team for the 2020-21 season.
One recent addition Harbinson hopes can help fill the void is 17-year-old centre Ryan McGuire. McGuire, 6’2” 185 lbs, was ranked 105th among North American skaters eligible for the 2020 NHL Entry Draft by Central Scouting Services.
Harbinson said he has already envisioned McGuire filling Colton Kalezic’s spot playing the middle between Tyler Ho and Tristan Amonte.
“He’s a passionate player, he plays hard, he plays both ways and he’s a guy that can do a little bit of everything. I think McGuire with those two guys could be a real force,” said the coach.
Harbinson also noted that how returning forwards like Ho, Amonte, Liam Malmquist and Jackson Neidermayer progress with one more year of development will be crucial for the 2020-21 squad.
“It will be exciting to see those guys a year older and stronger,” he said.
In net, Harbinson said the goaltending tandem of Yaniv Perets and Carl Stankowski may have to be split up because both players will be 20-years-old at the start of the season (The BCHL allows a maximum of six 20-year-old players on a team). Whatever the organization decides to to, Harbinson has no doubt his goaltending will be great next season.
As for the back-end, the Vees will have less holes to fill. The look of the team’s defensive core will, however, greatly depend on if Conner Hutchison decides to head off to college or spend another season in Penticton.
“If he comes back he can be one of the best defensemen in the league,” Harbinson said of Hutchison.
Despite hockey still consuming a good portion of his life, Harbinson was quick to point out that the pandemic is bigger than hockey.
“There’s bigger issues in the world right now and people with a lot bigger hardships,” he said.
Until hockey returns Harbinson asks that fans stay positive in these trying times and do what they can to support each other.
“This is uncharted territory… I feel really bad for what some people are going through. We’ll try to find a way to get through this and I think when it’s all over we’re going to need each other.
“I really hope we’re there in full force in the fall because I think after we go through something like this you need some enjoyment in your life. I really think people will be tired of sitting at home and watching Netflix… and they’re going to want to be out with their family and watching hockey.
“I just want everybody to know that we’re behind them and I’m sure they’ll be behind us when we get back on the ice.”