By Brad Schlossman
PENTICTON, British Columbia — There are easier ways to get to Penticton, British Columbia.
There’s a small, regional airport adjacent to town and a much larger one an hour up the road, just north of Kelowna.
But I took the scenic way, starting in Vancouver and winding through towns that you see dotted across college hockey rosters under the “previous team” column: Coquitlam, Surrey, Chilliwack.
They are all home to teams in the British Columbia Hockey League, a developmental junior league where players can stay college eligible. It is one of the primary feeders to NCAA men’s hockey rosters.
Chilliwack, in particular, has been a vital one as of late for UND. It’s where alternate captain Jordan Kawaguchi and freshman Harrison Blaisdell played juniors. It’s also where future UND players Ethan Bowen and Cooper Moore are competing. Kawaguchi’s picture still hangs on the front door at Prospera Centre, where the Chiefs hosted and won the 2018 Canadian Junior A national championship.
The drive is just beginning, though, and the end destination is Penticton, a small town in the center of British Columbia that has become a popular stopping ground for top college players.
In the last decade, no high school or junior hockey team has sent as many players to the University of North Dakota as the Penticton Vees.
From Brendan O’Donnell and Mark MacMillan to Troy Stecher, Nick Jones and Tyson Jost to the six players on this year’s roster — Adam Scheel, Colton Poolman, Dixon Bowen, Gabe Bast, Jonny Tychonick and Jackson Keane — the Fighting Hawks have brought 12 recruits to campus in the last 10 years from Penticton.
That’s more than the six from the U.S. Under-18 Team, the five from the Waterloo BlackHawks in the United States Hockey League and the four from the Fargo Force (USHL), Lincoln Stars (USHL) and Okotoks Oilers in the Alberta Junior Hockey League.
So, what is it about Penticton that draws so many recruits and churns out so many prospects?
Let’s get back to the drive.
As you get on the Trans-Canada Highway leaving Chilliwack, you have mountains on one side and a creek running alongside the road on the other. It may not be the Pacific Coast Highway, but it’s in the same league. Each winding turn opens up a new window of scenery that is somehow better than the one before it.
There are reminders that it’s not always this beautiful, though.
After passing through the town of Hope, you get on the Coquihalla Highway and begin rapidly climbing in elevation. There are signs every few miles that warn travelers that the weather can change in an instant. Semi trucks get their own lane because they are nearly ground to a halt by the elevation.
In the winter, it can be such a dangerously wild stretch of highway that Discovery Channel centered a TV show around a towing company that operates on the Coquihalla. They titled the show, ‘Highway Thru Hell.’
“I was definitely a little scared more than once,” Poolman said of driving on the Coquihalla.
After an hour driving north on the Coquihalla, you get to another BCHL town of Merritt, then turn east toward Okanagan Lake. One more hour and you get to the massive lake that’s 84 miles long and 2-3 miles wide.
Drive along the lake for 30 minutes and you arrive in Penticton.
Vacation, hockey town
Penticton, population of roughly 37,000, is located on the south end of Okanagan Lake. It’s actually sandwiched between two lakes. The other side of town borders Skaha Lake, which is roughly 7 miles long.
There’s beachfront on both sides of town. Each morning in the summer, workers groom the sand in front of Skaha Lake’s recreation area as both residents and vacationing tourists fill in.
Numerous wineries dot the side of outskirts of town.
But these attractions are not what bring top hockey players to town. In fact, most of them never spend a summer in town, and some never even make visits before committing to the junior program.
They go there for the hockey.
This is nothing new.
UND has been recruiting hockey players from Penticton for decades. Howard Walker, Cary Eades, Darren Jensen, Ian Kidd and Neil Eisenhut all played junior hockey in Penticton.
Outside the locker room, there’s an NCAA wall with photos of all of its alums who played college hockey. You’ll also find pictures of Rory McMahon, Mike Prpich, Brett Hextall and Evan Trupp there.
Prior to 2008, the Penticton’s junior team — which has been called the Vees, Panthers, Knights and Broncos at different times — played at Penticton Memorial Arena. It’s a barn-styled building that’s still used to this day.
The concourse of Memorial Arena features history of junior hockey in the town going back decades.
Now, the Vees play at the South Okanagan Events Centre, located adjacent to the old Memorial Arena, right next to the downtown area. It’s just a couple of blocks away from Okanagan Lake.
Outside of the arena, a Penticton Vees car sits in the parking lot. On one side of it is a picture of Scheel. On the other side, it’s Tychonick.
The arena seats 5,000 for hockey games. They don’t often sell out games, but Penticton did lead the BCHL in attendance last season, averaging 3,119, which was just ahead of the Wenatchee Wild, Chilliwack Chiefs, Vernon Vipers and Trail Smoke Eaters.
But the main recruiting and development center is down below.
This is where head coach Fred Harbinson, assistants Matt Fraser and Patrick Sexton and operations director Adam West have their offices.
In the coaches room, they have a whiteboard with the projected line chart of every BCHL team and an area to prepare for each weekend’s games.
Down the hall, there are reminders of the program’s past successes: the NCAA wall, the NHL wall, tributes to every captain and every major BCHL award winner. Walker, Kidd, Prpich, Hextall, Stecher, Jost, Jones and Massimo Rizzo, a 2020 UND recruit, have all served as captain there.
They even have a section of a wall that records the name of every player who has ever played in Penticton — even if it was just for a single game.
The Vees have a weight room next door to the locker room.
On the way to the ice is a countdown clock, a digital timekeeper that ticks away the days, hours, minutes and seconds until the next game.
Similarities to UND
While UND doesn’t pick and choose specific junior hockey programs to recruit from, the coaching staff does like having players from successful programs.
That goes way back to when Shattuck-St. Mary’s and the Lincoln Stars were sending dozens of players to Grand Forks and has continued with Canadian programs like Penticton, Chilliwack and Okotoks. American-based USHL teams still are the most popular junior hockey destination for UND players.
There are other similarities, too.
Penticton, like UND, leans on its history. And like UND, Harbinson likes to run the Vees with a professional influence. Harbinson served as an assistant coach at St. Cloud State prior to moving to Penticton.
“With both Grand Forks and Penticton, you get a small-town feel,” Scheel said. “Penticton is almost secluded, especially for a city kid (like me). Grand Forks has a small-town feel where everyone knows each other. So, it’s kind of similar.”
This season is the first in a decade where UND doesn’t have a player on the Vees roster, because Penticton traded away Rizzo in the summer.
But the Vees — whose current roster includes the sons of former NHLers Doug Weight, Mike Sillinger, Tony Amonte, Scott Niedermayer — will continue supplying other college hockey programs.
That’s nothing new, either.
North Dakota’s U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Game against Michigan Tech marked the third-straight weekend where a UND opponent had a Penticton player on the roster — MSU-Mankato had Ryan Sandelin, the son of Minnesota Duluth head coach Scott Sandelin, Bemidji State had Owen Sillinger and Zach Driscoll and Michigan Tech had Seamus Donohue.
UND will see Griffin Mendel at Denver in two weeks, Sam Rossini and Jack LaFontaine at Minnesota in the first half, too.
A different experience
Poolman chose to play his final year of junior hockey in Penticton alongside Bowen, his high school teammate at East Grand Forks Senior High.
He wanted to play in a more offensive league and have a more offensive role to develop that side of his game.
But his decision to go to Western Canada was bigger than that.
“I had lived in the Red River Valley all my life,” Poolman said. “It was an opportunity to get out of the area a little bit and experience something new. That was the thought process for me. It really impacted my life to see different things from different viewpoints. It was pretty cool.”
UND’s last 10 recruiting classes, previous team
12 — Penticton Vees (BCHL)
6 — U.S. Under-18 Team
5 — Waterloo BlackHawks (USHL)
4 — Fargo Force (USHL), Okotoks Oilers (AJHL), Lincoln Stars (USHL)