NHL Young Stars Injects Hockey Excitement into Penticton, with a Substantial Agenda in the Works

Penticton, British Columbia, Has an Insatiable Appetite for Hockey. The Annual Young Stars Classic, Featuring the Canucks, Flames, Oilers, and Jets, Showcased Hall of Famers and Elite Prospects in the Lakeside City, Delivering Spectacular Entertainment.

Aidan McDonough
Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports

Penticton, British Columbia, boasts a truly remarkable Jr. A venue in the form of the South Okanagan Events Centre, a facility that could be likened to a palace. This dual-sheet complex, with its primary rink accommodating 4,700 spectators, opened its doors in 2008. While it hosts various concerts and special events, its core tenants are undeniably centered around the sport of hockey. These include the esteemed Okanagan Hockey Academy, the prestigious B.C. Hockey Hall of Fame, and the BCHL’s Penticton Vees.

Fred Harbinson has been at the helm of the Vees since the year prior to the move into this state-of-the-art facility, and under his guidance, the team has cultivated an elite program. The Vees recently clinched their second consecutive championship, with their leading scorer for the 2022-23 season, Bradly Nadeau, drafted 30th overall by the Carolina Hurricanes the previous June.

In recent years, the Penticton Vees have also become the preferred Jr. A program for several notable NHL alumni seeking a pathway to NCAA hockey for their sons.

During a Young Stars practice, you might catch a glimpse of Hockey Hall of Famer Scott Niedermayer observing the proceedings. Both of his sons, Jackson and Joshua, honed their skills with the Vees before embarking on their collegiate careers at Arizona State University. Meanwhile, 15-year-old Luke is currently part of the OHA’s U-17 team.

Joe Nieuwendyk’s son, also named Jackson, spent two productive years in Penticton before heading to Canisius College. Mike Richter’s son, William, affectionately known as Beanie, completed three successful seasons with the Vees and is now pursuing his education at Yale. Additionally, Jason Arnott’s nephew, Callum, is set to assume the role of Vees captain for the 2023-24 season, marking his second year with the team.

The South Okanagan Events Centre’s premium amenities also make it an ideal venue for Western Canada’s NHL prospect tournament. Officially hosted by the Vancouver Canucks, the Young Stars Classic has undergone several iterations over the years, with its current format as a three-game round-robin tournament featuring the Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames, and Winnipeg Jets proving to be the most successful.

The presence of two ice sheets allows for concurrent practice sessions, while the expansive dressing-room facilities provide ample space for all four teams to establish a temporary base. Penticton, set against a picturesque late-summer backdrop as the tourist season winds down in this lakeside town, proves to be an enticing destination for hockey management, scouts, players, and fans alike. Even during their team dinners, when players sport their unmistakable team-logoed polo shirts, the locals maintain a respectful distance.

During their time in Penticton, the Canucks’ brain trust made a prominent appearance, filling a suite in the southwest corner of the arena during their games. Among the most conspicuous figures were none other than Hall of Famers Daniel and Henrik Sedin, now actively engaged in player development under the guidance of their former teammate, Chris Higgins. The Sedins continue to draw star-struck kids for photo opportunities in the concourse between periods of Vancouver’s tournament-opening 7-1 victory over the Calgary Flames.

This year, the Oilers garnered robust support from their fan base in Penticton, a development that comes as no surprise considering their success at the NHL level. They are currently at the forefront of discussions about potentially ending Canada’s Stanley Cup drought. However, it’s worth noting that GM Ken Holland candidly acknowledges the reality of trading many draft picks and prospects to maintain a “win now” mode for the team, which may not align perfectly with building a roster for a Young Stars event.

The Oilers, emphasizing the “young” aspect of the tournament title, notably featured three 18-year-olds in goal, with only one of them being drafted. Their tournament performance resulted in a record of 1-1-1, with standout performances from 18-year-old right-shot defenseman Beau Akey.

Selected in the second round during the draft in Nashville this past June, Akey recounted a starstruck moment when Sam Gagner greeted him at the Oilers’ facility. He eagerly anticipated his inaugural meetings with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Upon donning the blue and orange jersey for the first time, the Barrie Colts’ defenseman exhibited remarkable poise and maturity. He exuded confidence while orchestrating plays on the first-unit power play, ultimately tallying a goal and two assists.

As for the Jets, they secured a single victory in three games, concluding with a 1-2-0 record and a modest goal tally of six. Their sole triumph came via a shootout against Vancouver, with considerable credit owed to Thomas Milic, the reigning WHL goalie of the year and a world juniors gold medalist at just 20 years old. Milic demonstrated that his exceptional goaltending abilities could seamlessly transition to the next level, making an impressive 39 saves on 41 shots.

After being overlooked in the draft twice, Thomas Milic was finally chosen in the fifth round this past June. A strong showing in camp could secure him a place in the AHL this upcoming fall, allowing him to further advance his development.

The Flames prospects, under the guidance of new Calgary Wranglers head coach Trent Cull, deserve recognition for their resilience following a humbling 7-1 defeat on opening night at the hands of the Canucks. The very next day, they engaged in a feisty Battle of Alberta matchup against the Edmonton Oilers. The game culminated in dramatic fashion, with a 4-on-3 power-play goal in overtime, courtesy of the towering 6-foot-8 player, Adam Klapka.

Now in his second year as a professional in North America, the 23-year-old Czech player brings a physical presence to his game and excels as a screen in front of the net.

Calgary’s 20-year-old first-round pick from 2021, Matt Coronato, showcased promising potential, particularly when given the time and space to unleash his one-timer on the power play.

As for the host Canucks, whose prospect pool has faced challenges due to trades and underperforming draft picks, the Young Stars event served as a testament to the new management group’s positive direction. Vancouver stood as the only team to exit the Young Stars tournament without a regulation loss, boasting a 2-0-1 record. Moreover, the Canucks fielded more of their own players in the lineup than any other team, with only four camp invites. The standout skater in Penticton was winger Aidan McDonough, who, at 23, participated in his first Young Stars event after turning pro in March. McDonough impressively notched a power-play goal in all three games, earning him the title of tournament leader and garnering attention with his precision.

McDonough made his mark with six NHL appearances towards the end of the previous season, securing one goal. However, the Canucks currently boast a surplus of wing players, making it a challenging task for him to secure a spot in the team’s opening-night lineup. Nevertheless, as a seventh-round pick from the 2019 draft who is rapidly gaining popularity in the media, McDonough is shaping up to be a valuable asset.

In the previous season, the Canucks witnessed a remarkable performance from Russian free-agent signee Andrei Kuzmenko, who contributed 39 goals. During the spring, they may have discovered more hidden talents.

Nikita Tolopilo, the towering 6-foot-5 goaltender from Belarus, carried the second-largest workload in the tournament, totaling 99 minutes. He concluded the event with an impressive 1.82 goals-against average, conceding only three goals on 29 shots. On the defensive front, Akito Hirose, who transitioned from college to play seven NHL games last season, emerged as the tournament’s top scorer with five points. Cole McWard closely followed with four points, while center Max Sasson added three points to his tally.

Ken Holland emphasizes the importance of allowing prospects to showcase their abilities against their peers, making tournaments like Young Stars invaluable evaluation tools. This commitment to player development is why he played a key role in pioneering the original Traverse City tournament in the late ’90s and why 29 out of the NHL’s 32 teams participated in prospects events this year.

The atmosphere both at the rink and in town is charged with the excitement of another hockey season on the brink of commencement. While the final outcomes of the games may not hold substantial significance, the stakes remain high for individuals looking to secure jobs and bolster their reputations, reminding us that Young Stars is indeed a serious business.


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