As defending champions of the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League, the Peninsula Panthers will have a special mark on their back as they start the 2022-2023 season.
But owner and general manager Pete Zubersky said his team is ready to handle that challenge. “We have as good a chance as anybody this year and I think the experience of being a champion is going to pay off in big dividends when it counts.”
The Panthers won the title in April against the Oceanside Generals with a thrilling, come-from-behind-overtime victory in Game 6 with Logan Speirs scoring the tying, then winning goals to complete a championship season forever associated with the death of player Grant Gilbertson.
So how will this history shape the team’s mindset and emotional makeup?
“Nothing can make it better except time,” Zubersky said. “It’s nine months behind us now. While it’s not forgotten, it’s not right on the surface anymore.”
Looking to the future, the Panthers enter the season without Speirs last year’s VIJHL most valuable player and top scorer Riley Braun. Both have aged out. But 14 players from last year’s team are back, including Matthew Seale – last year’s VIJHL top defender and this year’s team captain – and forward Payton Braun – last year’s VIJHL rookie of the year.
Zubersky said the Panthers had a busy off-season rounding out the roster.
“I’m not going to say that we were a one-line team (with Speirs centering the Braun brothers), but nobody could shut that line down,” he said. “When times were tough, those guys stood out. So this year is going to be different. I said to the team (Tuesday) that I like this year’s version better than last year’s version. We are really balanced. We are big. We are fast. We are skilled and this is going to be by committee. Everybody is going to be chipping in.”
The Panthers will also have a different face sending them over the boards, as Zubersky will focus on off-ice duties with Chris Driebergen taking over as a head coach.
“He is 180-degree different than I am … I’m a much more demanding and in-your-face bench boss,” said Zubersky. “He is a soft-spoken, quiet guy. He really knows the game and for the players, it’s a nice switch.”
Another interesting dynamic is the team’s goaltending situation, with twin Mason Kelly joining his brother Brady Kelly, who played with the Panthers last year.
While British Columbian hockey fans are more than familiar with twins on the same team — the Sedins, for example — it is rather unusual, if not unprecedented to see twins competing for playing time between the pipes.
“It’s going to be a healthy competition,” said Zubersky. “They both want to start. They want to be in goal but they are super supportive (of each other). It’s one of the most unique stories in junior hockey.”
Equally unique could be the future career of defender Seth Fryer, who finds himself on the Panthers’ roster as a 16-year-old currently listed at 6’6” weighing 195 pounds with room to grow. “He has got bit of an edge to him,” said Zubersky in drawing comparisons to Ryan O’Byrne, who played in the NHL for Montreal, Colorado and Toronto. “This kid (Fryer) has every bit as much potential.”
Somebody of Fryer’s size and potential does not go unnoticed and he found himself in the Victoria Royals’ training camp earlier this month.
“He is going to stick with us for the year, but he is going to be practicing with the Royals and playing some games for the Royals.”
Overall, Zubersky expects a normal season with each of the 11 teams playing 48 rather than the 52 games seen last year under a schedule that doubles the games against teams from the North division to four.
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