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In Penticton, 'Vee' stands for victory

by Mike G. Morreale
Penticton Vees coach and general manager Fred Harbinson can say, with earnest, that he's now played a part in two of the most extraordinary winning streaks set in the British Columbia Hockey League.

The Vees, North America's No. 1-ranked Junior A hockey program, broke a 22-year-old league record on Tuesday when it notched its 30th straight win. It was a moment the fifth-year coach will always remember, particular since Harbinson played against the team that had held the previous mark of 29 consecutive triumphs -- the 1989-90 New Westminster Royals.

"I was playing for the Calgary Canucks in the Alberta Junior Hockey League in that 1989-90 season and remember going up against New West and losing and it's something, as an athlete, that you always look back on and it sticks with you," Harbinson told "When we started climbing and people began asking what the record was, I knew all along. I knew the team that had it and, as we got closer, our whole organization and our town got excited.

"I'm pretty proud of our guys."

Despite the fact the record-breaking victory was an anticlimactic 7-0 win against the Chilliwack Chiefs, players and coaches of the team certainly relished the moment with plenty of congratulatory hugs, handshakes and pictures afterwards.

"I give a lot of credit to everyone on our staff who worked really hard in the summer to make sure we did the right things to get the right pieces of the puzzle in here," Harbinson said. "We don't just have talented kids, but guys willing to work hard."

Incredibly, the Vees haven't lost a game since suffering a 3-2 overtime setback to the Merritt Centennials on Nov. 5, 2011. The loss came at a time when Harbinson's club was short several key players, including Canadians Troy Stecher, Curtis Loik and Travis St. Denis and Americans Mario Lucia and Mike Reilly. All five skaters were representing their countries at the 2011 World Junior A Challenge in Langley, B.C.

"We weren't overly worried about it and had been playing pretty well," Harbinson said. "When the three players from Canada West returned with their gold medals and the two U.S. kids returned after being upset, you could sense a lot of hunger and determination. We made a trade for Bryce Gervais (formerly of the Salmon Arm Silverbacks) shortly after, and you could just sense everything starting to click."

The team hasn't lost since and owns an astounding 42-3-2 record and 86 points. They've outscored the opposition 263-101 and hold a 27-point advantage over second-place Merritt in the Interior Conference.

"We heard fans of the other teams saying we would fall apart because we had a lot of high-end talented kids and, in this day and age, it's hard to keep those players happy if they're featured guys," Harbinson said. "I'll tell you one thing, if you interview any one of our players, they're more than excited to be a part of this. Every guy we have is committed to winning a championship and that's what we're set to do."

The Vees will have another opportunity to avenge their November loss to the Centennials on Feb. 25 on the road at Nicola Valley Arena.

Wade Murphy, who leads the team with 78 points, and St. Denis scored first-period goals to give Penticton a 2-0 lead in Tuesday's win. Lucia connected twice and Joey Benik, Grant Nicholson and Gervais had third-period goals to close out the scoring. Michael Garteig (36-4-3, 1.88 goals-against average, .931 save percentage) made 20 saves to earn his fifth shutout of the season.

Lucia, who will continue his career at the University of Notre Dame in the fall, was the first high school player selected at the 2011 NHL Draft when the Minnesota Wild chose him in the second round (No. 60) last June. For the season, Lucia has 32 goals and 77 points, including a team-leading 16 power-play goals. He's one of three drafted players on the team, including Reilly (Columbus Blue Jackets, fourth round, 2011) and Steven Fogarty (New York Rangers, third round, 2011).

The Vees, 21-0-0-1 (W-L-T-OTL) on home ice, continue their assault on the league record book on Friday at the South Okanagan Event Centre in Penticton against the Salmon Arm Silverbacks (15-26-7). During that 1989-90 campaign, the Royals established league records for most wins (52) at a time when ties weren't resolved with overtime during the regular season.

"There's always pressure no matter what you do," Harbinson said. "With a season like this, you have a group of people excited to see it and embrace it and another group that wants to tear you down and wants the upset, but that's sports. That's what makes sport great."

Penticton, the odds-on favorite to capture the BCHL, is closing in on that mark with just 13 games remaining. The BCHL champion will play the AJHL champion in the Doyle Cup in April and the survivor advances to Canada's National Junior A championship, the Royal Bank Cup, in Humboldt, Sask., beginning May 5.

"We'll keep doing what we've been doing and be humble doing it," Harbinson said. "We're not a team that thinks we're better than we are. We know we have a ton of work ahead of us but why wouldn't we have a goal of winning a National Championship. I think a lot of teams have that goal. If you don't set that goal at the start of the year, you will sell yourself short."

Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale

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