The team left Penticton this morning for Vancouver Island, as they get set for three games in two and half days. First up for the Vees is Victoria on Friday, followed by Cowichan Valley Saturday and Nanaimo on Sunday. Three games against three Island Division opponents and three teams the Vees haven’t seen this season.
This is always a trip players and staff circle on the calendar when the schedule comes out every year. Everyone gets excited to go to the island, it’s a welcome change in scenery, you play in rinks you rarely get to and it’s time on the road with one another; a chance to get away from the distractions of home. For a young team like the Vees, it’s a good experience being on the road for an extended period of time. The veteran players on the team have gone through this trip before and can lend a helping hand to the younger players on how to handle themselves. However, for everyone involved it’s a chance to bond, gel that much more; especially considering there is 18 new faces on this year’s squad.
There is plenty of time to have fun today, as the team heads to the coast. The players get a chance to unwind, stretch-out, lay-up and watch some movies and shoot the breeze. Not often you can have a travel day where you’re not prepping for a game; that kicks into high gear tomorrow. Also a highlight on the bus trip for this excursion in particular, is the annual Vees Karaoke Rookie Idol. Yes, Karaoke on the bus. All the newcomers have to pick one song and get up in front of the bus and belt out their best tune; even I had to sing last year-Johnny Cash. It’s a light-hearted rite of passage if you will; everyone has a good laugh. I unfortunately will miss out on today’s Rookie Idol as I drove down a day early.
Looking at the schedule and the Vees will have three stiff tests in front of them this weekend. Starting with Victoria, the Vees are playing a team tied for top spot in the Island Division. The Grizzlies have enjoyed a renaissance of sorts, as this season marks new ownership, coaching staff, players and heck, even a new look. BCHL veteran Bill Bestwick is behind the bench and brings a long list of accomplishments with him from his days behind the Clippers bench. Bestwick has quickly brought this team back to respectability, as they have six wins in their first 11 games and sit tied with Alberni Valley for first.
Vees fans will recognize four names on the Grizzlies roster, as Zach Urban, DJ Jones, Mark McLellan and Stefan Nicholishen all wear the black & gold. Urban and Jones were shipped to Victoria in the summer as part of the Wade Murphy trade; McLellan was the original catalyst in the deal in January. Nicholishen has bounced around since starting his 16 year-old season with the Vees. The Penticton native finished last season with the Silverbacks before his rights were traded out to Saskatchewan; soon he found himself in Victoria after a trade delivered his CJHL rights to the provincial capital. Urban wears the captaincy for the Grizzlies and Jones wears a letter as well. Jones is off to a terrific start for the Grizz, sitting third in team scoring with eight points. McLellan and Nicholishen provide some grit and muscle in depth roles and Urban is his usually physical self on the blue-line. I’m happy to see Urban and Jones thrive in their new role with a new team. It was tough to say goodbye to two quality individuals but Jr. Hockey is still a business and both players handled the trade like true professionals. For them it was an opportunity for a leadership role in a fantastic hockey market. By all accounts both have been big contributors and key pieces behind the Grizzlies turnaround.
Speaking of key pieces, I would be remiss not mention the dynamic trio of Gerry, Leo and Myles Fitzgerald, as the triplets are first, second and fourth in team scoring. The Grizzlies nabbed the Port Alberni products from the Prince George Spruce Kings over the summer and they haven’t disappointed. Myles leads the team in scoring with 10 points, closely followed by Leo with eight and Gerry with six. The three are like the Sedin’s, if the Sedin’s weren’t Swedish, smaller and cloned themselves to make one more. The comparison comes from their innate ability to find one another on the ice throughout the game; they know where each other are without having to look. The Vees will have their hands full trying to contain the three brothers tomorrow night.
Another familiar face greets the Vees on Saturday when the visit the “Big Stick” in Duncan; first trip to the Cowichan Valley since the 2010-2011 season. Grant Nicholson and the Cowichan Valley Capitals await the Vees in the middle game of the Island swing. The Caps aren’t off to the start they envisioned, sitting at the bottom of the five-team Island Division with two wins and five points from their first 10 games. However, the Vees can’t take the Caps lightly based on their record alone. This team has plenty of dangerous weapons upfront and if the Vees take the Caps lightly they will be in for a long night.
The Caps have a noticeable WHL influence on their roster, as five players applied their trade in the Major Junior Loop in seasons past. Leading the team is ex-Kamloops Blazer Ryan Hanes who has eight goals and 12 points in 10 games. Rounding out the top three is Steen Cooper (6-5-11) and Troy Paterson (2-8-10). Another ex-WHL’er is in the top five in Matt Grant (2-8-10). Grant is back for his second season with the Caps after spending time with the Moose Jaw Warriors and Everett Silvertips; Matt’s older brother Jordan played for the Caps two seasons ago. Other players to keep tabs on are Travis Stephens (ex-Silverback), Teal Burns (ex-Portland Winterhawk / Powell River King) and Mikael Jung (ex-Regina Pat). As you can see this team has some serious fire-power and its matter of time before they put it all together; hears hoping it isn’t on Saturday.
No disrespect to the Grizzlies and Capitals but Sunday’s opponent might be the toughest, considering the extenuating circumstances. The Vees face the Clippers in the road trip finale at Frank Crane Arena. The Clippers have seen their struggles of late, losing their past three games but are a team not to take lightly. As you are well aware, the Clippers are hosting the inaugural Western Canada Cup and have a strong roster to reflect that. Also you have to factor in the Vees will already have two games underneath them on this trip, and will be playing their second game in less than 24 hours. Mike Vandekamp likes his teams big, tough and hard-nosed and the Vees will have to be weary of that. Keep in mind the Clippers do play Alberni Valley twice before they meet the Vees in the Sunday matinee; regardless the Vees will be in for a battle.
The Clippers offense won’t blow you away as they’ve scored the second fewest goals in the BCHL. Former Vernon Viper and Captain Trevor Fitzgerald leads the way with three goals and six points; three players are tied for the points lead at six. Former Prince George Cougar and Nanaimo native, Greg Fraser sits second and former NAHL standout Michael McNicholas is third. What jumps out at me are 12 of their 22 players having at least one goal on the season; scoring by committee?
Defensively this team is in pretty good shape and feature 6’3, 220 pound bruiser Chris Rygus on the blue-line; remember him? Rygus was on the Woodstock Slammers last season, the team that lost out to the Vees in the RBC Cup final; he will have a chip on his shoulder no doubt. The Clippers also boast the MJHL MVP from last season between the pipes in Jason Argue. His numbers in the early going won’t jump out at you but the pedigree is there and good goalies always seem to rise to the occasion. Now Argue didn’t play last Sunday against Salmon Arm as there was some injury concern of some sort. However, I don’t know if that would keep him out of this weekend’s action as well.
Bottom line the Clippers are physical, relentless and will keep coming at the Vees all afternoon. The Sunday tilt won’t be any walk in the park.
Well, there you have it; a look at the upcoming weekend for the Vees. This trip always seems to be the one every Vees player remembers the most throughout the year; three wins would make it that much sweeter.