Six games. If everything goes according to plan, Gabe Bast has six games remaining in his junior hockey career.
Problem is, things haven’t quite gone as planned the last few years.
The 20-year-old defenceman from Red Deer, Alta., joined the Penticton Vees for the 2014-15 season and had a stellar rookie campaign, recording nine goals and 40 points in 49 games. In 22 playoff games he added another 13 points as the Vees won the Western Canada Cup and reached the semifinals at the RBC Cup.
Things were looking up for Bast.
Eight games into his second season with Penticton, Bast began feeling extreme discomfort with inflammation around the pelvis, later diagnosed as Osteitis pubis. The timetable for his return depended on whom you asked: “Things could settle down in a week or it could be nine months,” he was told.
“It was very tough,” said Bast. “There were a lot of lonely days sitting and watching, frustrated not being able to contribute. We had a great team that year, we went on a 23-game winning streak, and I sat there waiting, waiting and waiting, seeing doctor after doctor after doctor. It just never really got any better.”
Going into this season, the 5-foot-10, 191-pound blue-liner was extremely optimistic the injury was behind him. And with this being his final season in Penticton, having committed to the University of North Dakota next year, the goals he set for himself and the team were lofty – but wait, hold on, not so fast.
The Osteitis pubis flared up again and led to other issues with connecting muscles and ligaments. Bast played two games in September, four in November and one in January before playing seven consecutive to end the regular season. All in all he played only 14 games this year … another frustrating finish to another frustrating year, right?
Bast quickly returned to form, collecting six points over those final seven games, and he carried that momentum into the postseason. Twenty-one games later (one fewer than he played in the last two regular seasons, combined) and Bast, who has six goals and 11 assists in the playoffs, has the Vees primed to win their second national title in six seasons.
What a turnaround.
“My goal this year was to come in and win a national championship,” said Bast. “Then missing almost a full season again and playing only a handful of regular season games, I had to prove myself coming into playoffs. I had to prove myself to the coaching staff, I had to prove to my teammates, I had to prove to the fans, to everyone, that I could still do this. And we’re not finished yet.”
Bast credits the perspective he gained while continuously trying to overcome his injuries with helping feed his comeback beast. Taking a step back has him appreciating every moment on the ice: every shift, every face-off, and every blocked shot.
“Going from playing one day to having that taken away for almost a year and a half was definitely an eye-opener. Maybe I took it a little bit for granted beforehand, but after that it’s been different, let’s just say that.”
Whichever Bast it is that Vees head coach and GM Fred Harbinson is seeing these days, he likes. The veteran bench boss is just happy to have his most reliable defenceman back at full strength.
“He’s one of the most talented defencemen in junior hockey; he’s a good two-way defenceman with a great shot,” said Harbinson. “Offensively he runs our power play, but on the other side too he’s part of our shutdown pairing up against the opponent’s best players. He’s one of our leaders and one of our captains. I don’t believe we’re here today if we don’t have him in our line-up in the playoffs again this year.”
So is it safe to say Harbinson is surprised to see Bast at his best so quickly?
“I’m not surprised. We wondered about rust, but when you’re that kind of player and you’re finally completely healthy, look out. His talent and ability to see the game and play it at a high-level are second to none.”
With Bast and the Vees back at the RBC Cup, one thing is certain: this defenceman won’t be taking a shift off. He doesn’t have that many junior hockey shifts left, after all.
“I like our chances. We’ve got a great group, we’ve been resilient throughout the playoffs and it’s do or die now and we’ve responded every time that has been the case this season. We’ve got the squad to do this. I want to win and go out on top.
“There’s not many people who can say they won their last game of puck.”