Dakota Conroy, who had never won a playoff game prior to joining the Penticton Vees, understands the importance of every game in the Western Canada Cup (WCC).
Conroy and the Vees are among four of the top-10 ranked Canadian Junior Hockey League clubs vying for the WCC in Fort McMurray starting Saturday.
“We can’t take any days off. We can’t go and have a feeler game,” said Conroy, who scored the Fred Page Cup-clinching goal. “We need to come out with Game 7 mentality every time we touch the ice.”
The Vees, slotted No. 6, open against the Alberta Junior Hockey League champs, the Spruce Grove Saints, who sit No. 2. RBC Cup hosts Portage Terriers, the Manitoba Junior Hockey League champs sit No.1, while the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League’s Melfort Mustangs are seventh.
“It’s the biggest challenge of the year,” said Vees coach-general manager Fred Harbinson.
Three of the five teams will advance to Portage, Man., for the RBC Cup championship, Harbinson doesn’t feel it’s a sure bet to get there. It’s because all of the teams, minus the Oil Barons are also regular season champs just like them. The host Oil Barons lost in the first round, but as Harbinson said, they are well rested.
The Vees had only been Fred Page Cup champs (for the 11th time in franchise history) for two days, yet the coaching staff already had some homework done on their opponents.
“They are all different in their own way. It doesn’t matter what league they come from,” said Harbinson. “The best teams in every league are great.”
While the Vees are without co-captain Cody DePourcq out with a broken jaw, Lewis Zerter-Gossage returns to the lineup after sustaining a lower body injury on the opening shift of Game 7 against the Vernon Vipers on March 22. He started skating a week ago and looked good to Harbinson during practice.
“He was producing in the playoffs (six points in 11 games) and was second in our team in scoring (46 points in 57 games) in the regular season,” said Harbinson. “Add a 19-year-old, big body that can skate, it will be a boost when he gets back.”
The Montreal product, headed for Harvard University in the fall, found it tough to miss the last two rounds after playing the entire regular season.
“At least I was there to celebrate with the guys, got to watch all the games,” said Zerter-Gossage following the team’s final practice Wednesday at the OHS Training Centre. “I’m just thankful that I have another opportunity to play.”
Physically, Zerter-Gossage feels ready.
“I’m strong enough and not putting myself at risk,” he said.
In the absence of Zerter-Gossage and DePourcq, the Vees inserted Mitch Newsome and 15-year-old affiliate player Jordy Bellerive. Playing in five games, Bellerive scored a goal in the Vees’ 8-5 win over Nanaimo.
“He’s a special player, didn’t look 15 whatsoever,” said Harbinson. “We’re bringing a handful of our affiliate players (Bellerive, Taylor Ward, Griffin Mendel and Tyler Holz) on the road with us. I thought, Jordy did outstanding.”
The Vees are full of excitement as they enter the next step in their quest for a national title. Conroy said as long as the group comes together, they will be successful.
“That’s what we’re starting to realize,” said the BCHL’s player of the week ending April 19 after tallying a goal and six points in four games against the Clippers. “It’s not going to work with a couple chains out. We got Porky (DePourcq) and stuff. We are all fighting for him. We have a lot of things driving us.”
After winning the Fred Page Cup, Harbinson has seen a calmness in his group. There is confidence from playing in so many close situations during the playoffs.
“We had nine overtime games (six of which they won). There was another three games in the playoffs where we scored in the last four minutes of the game to win,” said Harbinson. “We have been in so many tight situations. It was just another day at the office (referring to their BCHL championship-winning performance).”
Harbinson said that experience will be huge in Fort McMurray.
“I think we’ve talked about it as a group. Honestly, there isn’t a scenario that can surprise us right now,” he said. “We did not have an easy road whatsoever. That’s what’s exciting about this challenge ahead.
Vees notes: Defenceman Gabe Bast is making his second appearance in the WCC. Last year he played with the Saints, the defending AJHL champs, in four games and knows some of the players. “It will be a great battle head-to-head,” said Bast. Tug’s Tap House Pub and Eatery will be live streaming all Vees games from now until the end of the season. Below is the schedule for the guaranteed Vees games throughout the WCC: Saturday, April 25 – Vees vs. Spruce Grove Saints (AJHL) at 1:30 p.m.; Sunday, April 26 – Vees vs. Fort McMurray Oil Barons (AJHL – HOST) at 6:30 p.m.; Tuesday, April 28 – Vees vs. Portage Terriers (MJHL) at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 29 – Vees vs. Melfort Mustangs (SJHL) at 6:30 p.m. There will also be a signed Vees jersey up for grabs. Fans must attend a game at Tug’s Tap House to enter-to-win a jersey signed by the entire 2014/15 team. One entry per person. Minors (18 and under) are allowed to attend Tug’s Tap House with the company of a parent/guardian until 7 p.m.