Sillinger talks trophies, attendance records

Led by captain and leading scorer Owen Sillinger, the Penticton Vees captured the Ron Boileau Memorial Trophy for the best record in the BCHL’s 2017-18 regular season.

Sillinger can appreciate the importance of finishing at the top of the standings in the regular season, but the 5-foot-10, 180-pound forward knows there is still work to do.

“It’s a huge honour and we’re proud of ourselves,” he said. “But at the same time, we know that the year’s not done. We’re hoping for a long stretch here in the playoffs and hopefully we can play right until the end of May.”

Fred Harbinson, who has been Penticton’s head coach since the 2007-08 season, understands what this accomplishment represents.

“It means a lot to us,” he said. “Whenever you can raise banners in your rink, it just continues to build on the foundation that you try to create, the culture that you try to create.”

Another contributing factor to the Vees’ successful season has been the record-breaking crowds they’ve had. This year, Penticton broke the Canadian Junior Hockey League (CJHL) attendance record, averaging over 3,000 fans a game.

“That says a lot about the city of Penticton,” said Sillinger, who was born in Penticton. “I think it’s something that the players have to value, the fanbase that we have and the support that we have with our community, I think it goes a long way.”

Part of our job is trying to get players ready to play in big environments in college hockey,” said Harbinson. “Being in our program here and playing in front of those crowds allows them to have another element that they’re used to once they get to the next level. Who doesn’t want to play in front of three, four-thousand people on a given night?”

It wasn’t an easy road for Penticton this year as they dealt with injuries to key players throughout the year, including a top scorer in Grant Cruikshank and defenceman and Toronto Maple Leafs draft pick Ryan O’Connell. Both were lost for the season.

“It says a lot about our character,” said Sillinger. “I think that our coaching staff had some decisions to make and the guys they brought in, it was perfect. We gained a lot of character guys like Wyatt Sloboshan and James Miller and Michael Campoli at the deadline. You saw we just took off from there.”

After these injuries to key offensive players, Sillinger went on a tear and ended up finishing the season tied for sixth in BCHL scoring and had the fourth-most goals in the league with 33.

“Whenever your team needs a push, obviously you want to be the guy,” said Sillinger. “I think Wyatt [Sloboshan], Chris [Klack] and myself have connected these last couple months on the ice and off the ice as well. Our chemistry has been leading up to some big-time scoring and I think that has to happen for our team.”

Harbinson appreciates the scoring ability of his captain, but he sees Sillinger as much more than just an offensive player.

“[Owen] just does a little bit of everything,” said Harbinson. “He’s what we want our captain to be. We’ve had some great captains here, Nick Jones, Tyson Jost, [Patrick] Sexton, Cody DePourcq and Brett Hextall. There’s been so many great captains that have come through here and in most cases they’re not one-dimensional players, they kind of do a little bit of everything.

“There’s a lot of nights when you feel like you need a little boost, you just have to look to your captain and he’s been a great one.”

Sillinger’s family has played a big role in his success throughout his career. This year, he got the opportunity to play with his younger brother Lukas for their hometown team in Penticton.

“[Lukas] started a little bit timid,” said Sillinger. “But I think he’s kind of finding his way now. He’s finding himself in a solid position in the lineup and he’s contributing every night.

“It[has been] very special. I think for my whole family to move out here, with us playing on the Vees and my younger brother Cole playing at the [Okanagan Hockey] Academy with my dad coaching, it’s a great stepping stone for our family to become closer before we all split up for the following year.”

His father Mike played 18 NHL seasons, including three with the Vancouver Canucks, and has been a positive influence on Owen’s development.

“He’s my biggest mentor,” said Sillinger. “He’s my role model. He’s the guy I want to be when I grow up. When you play 18 seasons in the NHL, you know you can learn a lot from him about the game of hockey. After each game he kind of has his own way of critiquing my play and stuff like that. He’s massive in not only my hockey career, but my younger brother’s as well.”

The Vees start their first-round playoff series on Friday at home against the Coquitlam Express. Even with a huge gap in the standings between the teams, Sillinger knows it will be a tough test.

“They’re going to be a good team,” he said. “They’re going to clog up the neutral zone. They’re going to wait for us to make mistakes. I think the big thing for us is we have to just worry about ourselves. These practice days are key for us to focus on our details and execute our gameplan. I think if we do that, we’ll be just fine.”

Harbinson coached the team to a Fred Page Cup win last year and he sees some similarities between that team and his current squad.

“We are similar in a way that we don’t get scoring out of just one or two guys,” he said. “Obviously this year Owen put up 30 goals, but last year it was Cruikshank that had over 30. Our scoring kind of comes throughout our lineup. I think we have more skill maybe than we had last year. Last year’s team found ways to win big games and we’ve done that in the regular season, now we have to show that we can do it in the playoffs.”

This will be Sillinger’s final season in the BCHL as he has committed to Bemidji State University for the 2018-19 season. For him, there would be no better way to cap his BCHL career than winning back-to-back championships for Penticton.

“Our goal, starting in August, was to be a Fred Page Cup contender,” he said. “We want to win it, so we’re going to do everything in our power to get there.”