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The greatest season in Canadian junior A hockey history


(This article was originally published on May. 24, 2020)

Many in the Okanagan won’t forget the Penticton Vees 2011-12 season.

At the helm was head coach and general manager, Fred Harbinson. While under his watchful eye, the Vees racked up the accolades throughout the season, winning the Interior Division, Fred Page Cup, Doyle Cup, and Royal Bank Cup as national junior A champions.

They rewrote the record book along the way. The longest win streak in a season at 42 games, most wins in a season with 54 and most points in a single season with 110. The Vees were indestructible.

The 2011-12 Vees included future NHLers Mike Reilly, who is currently playing for the Ottawa Senators, and current Vancouver Canucks defenseman Troy Stecher. During the year, the Vees managed to have nine players who played at least 20 games score over a point per game.

Joey Benik led the team in points with 96 and was two shy of the league leader.  Bryce Gervais, who came over in a midseason trade from Salmon Arm, and Mario Lucia shared the team lead in goals with 42. As the offense went, so did the defense. The Vees allowed only 133 goals for the season, which put their goal differential at a whopping plus-201. To put that in perspective, the next closest team in the league was the Powell River Kings with a goal differential of plus-96.

The Vees were unstoppable with a record of 54-4-2 and a winning percentage of .917. They only dropped 10 points all season long and won a national championship. The year itself is rarely seen in sports and may never be seen again in the BCHL.

Regular season domination

As the summer of 2011 was winding down, the province of BC was still coping with a Stanley Cup Final loss, while the BCHL was about to embark on its 50th year. Players and staff of the Penticton Vees were making preparations to start the regular season.

However, before we start with the 2011-12 season, a quick reminder of what had occurred the previous year. Finishing second in the division, the Vees lost game seven of conference semifinals at the hands of the Salmon Arm Silverbacks in a thrilling series. With returning players such as Stecher, Benik, and a few others, the Vees wanted to focus on avenging the previous season’s heartbreak.

Training camp rolled out, and the smell of a new sheet of ice was upon the horizon, and roster spots were to be won and lost. Players were battling while others were working out the kinks before the start of the season. After a few days of camp and preseason, the final preparations were solidified, and the roster was complete. Penticton’s boys of winter were ready for the start of the 2011-12 season. The Vees started the regular season with two games on the road. One in Coquitlam and the new Chilliwack Chiefs, who had relocated from Quesnel. However, it wasn’t until November that the Vees really hit their stride.

“Remember, remember! The fifth of November,” It’s a famous British saying, and on this day in 2011, the Vees hosted the Merritt Centennials. The Centennials jumped to a 2-0 lead, which they carried into the third period with goals from Evan Stack and Billy Marshall. The third started with Vees forward Connor Reilly scoring within five minutes of the period starting. Grant Nicholson tied the game with 30 seconds left on the clock, which took the game into overtime. However, it was Cents defenseman Richard Sabourin who scored the game-winner. Ultimately, this overtime loss would start the greatest streak the BCHL and Junior A hockey has ever seen.

Unchartered territory for the Vees

On Remembrance Day, the Vees strolled into the Cominco Arena, taking on the Trail Smoke Eaters. They beat the Smokies 7-2, which started the winning streak of 42 games. It’s a streak that may never be reached by any team in the BCHL again.

From the eleventh of November until the last game of the regular season, the Vees where unstoppable. No one could beat them. Teams tried and came close but eventually fell at the hands of a dominant Penticton team. With a 10-0 victory at home versus the Smoke Eaters on March 6, the Vees broke the record for the longest winning streak in North America junior hockey history.

The Vees finished the season with back to back road games against the Prince George Spruce Kings who had current Edmonton Oilers winger Jujhar Khaira in the lineup. It was a tough task, the Spruce Kings were one of the few teams who took points away from the Vees early in the season, beating Penticton in double overtime back on October 8.

The Vees took the ice on March 9 and found themselves victorious once again, beating PG 8-5 to extend the streak to 42 games.

With one game remaining on deck, the Vees were 60 minutes away from ending the season without suffering a loss in nearly four months, but the Spruce Kings didn’t want any part of that.

Two minutes into the opening frame, Prince George forward Jarryd ten Vaanholt put the Kings in front 1-0. The Vees battled back on a goal by Loik before the teams traded goals in the second period and after 40 minutes, the game was knotted at two. The Vees put themselves in a great position to extend the streak, but Spruce Kings forward Myles Fitzgerald scored the eventual winner seven minutes into the third. Then PG forward Michael Colantone added two more to put the nail in the streak’s coffin.

Before the playoffs began, the BCHL handed out its awards and the Vees dominated those too. Vees goalie Michael Garteig won the goaltending award for the lowest goals-against average with 1.93, coach of the year for the Interior Division went to Fred Harbinson, Mike Reilly won the best defenseman award and Mario Lucia was the league’s rookie of the year. However, they weren’t the only awards the Vees would receive before the season ended.

Fred Page Cup playoffs

With the regular season wrapped up and the trophies handed out, it was time for the real season to begin.

The Vees secured home ice throughout the playoffs with their incredible regular season and up first was the Chilliwack Chiefs. With three points in the first four games, Malcolm Gould, who led the Chiefs in points in the regular season, helped Chilliwack earn a split. The series was tied and headed back to the South Okanagan Events Centre for game five.

Loik scored his first of the series and, ultimately, the game-winner to give the Vees a 3-2 series lead, which made the drive up the Coquihalla a pleasant one. There was no scoring in the first period of game six and  Gervais gave the Vees the lead early in the second. That was all the scoring they needed to secure the series as Chad Katunar turned away 32 shots to pace a 4-0 win.

Round two of the Fred Page Cup playoffs saw the Vees take on the Merritt Centennials, who pushed Penticton during the regular season. The Vees and Cents split games one and two at the SOEC. As the series shifted to Merritt, it was the Vees who regained home ice with back to back wins and full control. Back in Penticton, the Vees laid the hammer on the Cents in game five with a 6-2 win. Up next was a date with the Coastal Division champion Powell River Kings.

The Vees carried their momentum into the final round of the Fred Page Cup, where they swept the Kings. Each game except for game one saw a one-goal game; the series itself was much closer than the outcome, despite a sweep.

Doyle Cup and Royal Bank Cup

With the Fred Page Cup in their back pocket, the Vees moved on to the Doyle Cup regional championship series between the winners of the BCHL and Alberta Junior Hockey League.

As the winners of the BCHL, the Vees played against Brooks Bandits in a best of seven to determine who will move on to the Royal Bank Cup. The first two games of the series were at the home of the Bandits, where the Vees took care of business in winning both games. Back home, the Vees gave themselves the chance to advance to the Royal Bank Cup in front of their fans. Despite losing game three 4-3, the Vees rolled on in games four and five. The series was slightly lopsided for the Vees, who outscored the Bandits 23-8 in five games.

The Royal Bank Cup is the highest honour a junior A hockey team can achieve. It’s a grueling tournament format that sees the winner of the Pacific, West, Central, and East regions of the Canadian Junior Hockey League as well as the host team battling to become the best junior A team in the country.

As the host team, the Humboldt Broncos earned an automatic berth in the tournament. The Portage Terriers, Soo Thunderbirds, and Woodstock Slammers all won their regions to fill out the tournament’s bracket.

The Vees had to face all four teams, but that was a tough ask, with each squad being a champion as well as Penticton. The Vees managed a respectable 2-2 record to earn a spot in the semi-finals. Only the Thunderbirds stood in the way of the Vees from advancing to the finals of the tournament.

The Vees earned their spot in the finals by beating the Thunderbirds 3-0 on goals by Wade Murphy, Logan Johnston, and Curtis Loik. However, the Vees didn’t have much time to celebrate as the final was less than 24 hours away.

The final game of the season

Awaiting the Vees on the other side was the Slammers, who beat the Broncos 4-3 in overtime in the other semi-final. With the finals set, it was game on between the two clubs. Puck drop was scheduled for 4:30 pm, the anticipation was building on both sides.

The Vees opened the scoring on the power play on a goal from Travis St. Denis and added another one quickly by Steven Fogarty. Slammers centre Bradley Greene cut the deficit in half on a deflection. The Vees took a 2-1 lead after one with 40 minutes remaining in the junior A hockey season. The second period only saw one goal which came from the Slammers, and with the game tied at two, the city of Humboldt was in for a crazy final 20 minutes.

With no tomorrow, both teams emptied the tank. Woodstock came out early in the third and found the back of the net in the first 90 seconds of play. With less than 10 minutes remaining in the Vees season, Bryce Gervais poked the puck past Woodstock goaltender Matt Murphy. With time running out, the game looked poised to head into overtime until Joey Benik scored with 51.3 seconds left on the clock to give the Vees the win and 2012 national championship crown.

As team captain and Penticton native Logan Johnston hoisted the cup over his shoulders, the historic 2011-12 season was over for the Vees, but not before the iconic team picture. What started back in late August led to this moment as the greatest season in Canadian junior A hockey history.

The season was so impressive that it was announced this past January that the 2011-12 Penticton Vees will be among the 2020 inductees into the BC Hockey Hall of Fame.