As we all are aware by now, Minnesota's 2011 2nd Round Pick (60th overall), Mario Lucia, opted to head to the lovely town of Penticton, British Columbia to play for the Vees in the British Columbia Hockey League.
What you may not know is that Fraser Rodgers, who serves as Penticton's Director of Broadcasting and Media Relations, has had the best seat in the house in terms of watching not only Lucia, but Penticton's improbable 37 game (yes 37 games!) win streak (they'll attempt to tie the BCHL record 38 consecutive wins Friday, March 2nd, against Salmon Arm); Rodgers is the "Voice of The Vees", calling their games on the radio.
So by way of the series of tubes we call the interwebs, I reached out to Fraser to get his thoughts on the sights and sounds he's taking in.
1. What is it about the Vees that have enabled them to win 37 games in a row? Is it just having an obscene amount of talent, or is it more?
Fraser Rodgers: I’ve been asked this question plenty and the one word, or two words that come to mind are consistency or continuity. The Vees night in and night out put the same effort forth no matter where they’re playing or whom they’re playing. The team has a slogan of sorts, “All Business” and that really describes how they approach the game and the season and why they get the results they do. There is a noticeable focus that comes with that and the Vees rarely deviate from the game plan the coaching staff gives them.
The talent no question helps, as some of these players are gifted athletes and that shows on any given night but talent alone won’t get you far (i.e NY Rangers in early 2000’s). It’s how you mesh and play within defined roles and every player really has embraced that. The team could say they have three first lines and a “fourth line” that can skate with any other trio in the BCHL. These players came here to win and will do anything for that, including taking on roles they might not otherwise be in and that in turn has helped them grow as players.
2. For you, to be the "Voice of the Vees", what's it like to be a part of something like this? I have to imagine you are having an absolute blast calling these games.
FR: I think you just answered your own question! In all seriousness, this has been such a special season to be part of not only for the on-ice success but this a special group off of it. The players on this team are great kids, young men who mature beyond their years and that are one of the most impressive things. Whether it is in media interviews or community appearances, or interacting with the fans, these young men truly are great role models.
On the ice, having a birds-eye view of the talent is something special for sure; the plays these players put together leaves you speechless at times and that’s saying something! Going back to the first question, what I’m so impressed with when calling the games is their consistent approach throughout the year; if it’s against the 2nd place team or the 8th, this group brings it every night.
3. So let's get provincial here- what sort of impact has the large contingent of Minnesotans had for the Vees?
FR: Well some of our most key players hail from the state of ten thousand lakes. No less than eight players are from Minnesota and they’re here for a reason. The three Reilly brothers (Twin’s Connor & Ryan younger brother Mike) have been as advertised and that’s darn good. Connor currently leads the team in scoring with 86 points which is also 2nd in the entire league. Twin Ryan centers a very dangerous third line with Central Scouting ranked Wade Murphy and the youngest; Mike leads all BCHL defensemen in scoring (71 points) and is ninth in the league scoring race.
Right behind Connor Reilly in team scoring is former St. Francis High School standout Joey Benik (86 points) who also leads the league in assists (59). In fact, three of the top five in team and league scoring are Minnesotans (Connor Reilly, Joey Benik and Mario Lucia). Speaking of Lucia, he sits fourth in the BCHL with 84 points and plays on the top line with Connor Reilly.
Don’t forget about Steven Fogarty (Edina) as he might be the most underrated player in the BCHL. Fogarty has 28 goals and 72 points and anchors the Vees second line. He might be the best two-way forward in the entire league, as he consistently gets put up against the opposition’s best line. Fogarty is showing a knack for scoring timely goals too; he leads the BCHL in game-winning goals with nine.
DJ Jones (Plymouth) and Chad Bannor (Hermantown) are very dependable defensemen who give the Vees great depth on their blue-line. Jones is an underrated two-way defenseman who can rush the puck but also can play in a shutdown role. Bannor’s game has grown leaps and bounds and is relishing in a defensive minded role.
4. Do you think Penticton's success with this group of Minnesotans opened the door even further for Penticton to get more MN/American kids to play in the BCHL over, say the USHL?
FR: No doubt that the success these high profile Minnesotans have had play key role in recruiting and marketing of the team. When players such as the Beniks, Lucias, and Fogartys are playing here and thriving it gets young players in Minnesota thinking about the Penticton Vees and the BCHL.
The Vees are a team that runs off the belief of making this program the most professional and best it absolutely can be and if that means recruiting from afar such as Minnesota then that’s what they will do. This organization wants to ice the best product it can and wants to have the best players it possible can find. Right now, and what it seems every year, Minnesota is a hockey state that’s producing some high-end talent that is on everyone’s radar including the Vees.
The Vees are not in a direct recruiting “battle” with the USHL, NAHL or any other league but as mentioned, want to put together a team that can compete for the BCHL Championship on any given year.
5. Alright, let's talk some Mario Lucia. Who is he as a player, and what does he mean to Penticton's success?
FR: Mario is the prototypical power-forward that will be quite the talent in the future. Already he is starting to show how to use the tools he possesses to overwhelm and take over games. Lucia has the uncanny mix of size (6’3), skill and speed. He plays on the wing and can overpower the oppositions defence along the wall in or stick handle through traffic and put himself in scoring areas. He had a slight adjustment period from Minnesota high school hockey to Canadian Jr. ‘A’ early on but since then has become arguably the best power-forward in the BCHL.
6. What sort of situations is he seeing ice time in/ what is his role?
FR: Lucia plays in all situations for the Vees, five-on-five, power-play and penalty-kill and has shown he can thrive in a variety of roles. He has 24 even strength goals, 12 power-play goals and two short-handed goals which is tied for second on the team. There’s a reason why the 18 year-old plays on the top line for the Vees and plays in the situations he does; the coaches know that he’s a competitor and as they say one of the most coachable players they have had.
7. In your eyes, how has he improved or developed as a player during the course of the year? And what does he still need to work on?
FR: As I stated earlier, Mario did have to adjust to the physicality of the BCHL and the size of the competition that’s in the league. Since then, the forward has come a long way, he is an aggressive player who wants the puck and continually makes things happen when he is on the ice. Mario to me isn’t labeling himself as just one dimensional either, he obviously can score and his shot is up there with the best of him but his vision and ability to create plays is something special.
I would compare him to Anaheim Ducks forward Corey Perry; a lanky player who can score off the rush but also can be distributor. Lucia has a similar makeup as Perry, in that both are tall, slender built forwards but can be physical and are good down low with the puck.
In regards to what he needs to work on it would be his size; 195 lbs. he is playing at right now. He has a big frame and still has room to fill-out and get some muscle put on. Like most teenagers, his body is still growing, maturing and once he starts to get that size to complement his skill he can be a handful for other teams.
Again, many thanks to Fraser Rodgers for his time and great responses. Also thanks to Clickhotel.com and Vipersdiehardfan.com for the pictures.