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Panthers GM expects big things for Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League season

Peninsula and Victoria Cougars play home-and-home Sept. 9-10
Payton Braun (in blue), seen here in exhibition action against the Westshore Wolves, is a new addition to the Peninsula Panthers, who open their Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League season with back-to-back games against the Victoria Cougars, including Friday’s home opener at Panorama Recreation Centre. (Photo by Gordon Lee)

Pete Zubersky, owner and general manager of the Peninsula Panthers, is excited about the start of the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League (VIJHL) season.

The Panthers are scheduled to play their first home game Friday night (Sept. 10) at Panorama Recreation Centre against the Victoria Cougars, a day after the teams face off at Archie Browning Sports Centre in Esquimalt.

However, that schedule could change as the season opener between the Westshore Wolves and Lake Cowichan Kraken, which was scheduled for Wednesday night, was cancelled due to positive COVID-19 tests among players.

“We have a really excited group who are ready to go for our home opener, and I would think that our fans will have a ton of energy going into the game on Friday,” Zubersky said. “It doesn’t hurt to have the Cougars in for the game, there is not a lot of love lost between the two organizations.”

READ MORE: Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League cancels season opener in Colwood due to COVID-19 cases

His own anticipation flows from the overall position of the league.

“We have never been healthier,” he said. “There is real excitement around the league with the expansion. I have been in the league for 20 years and this is the first time in the last decade that we have had expansion.”

This season sees the league grow by two teams to 11 – the Lake Cowichan Kraken and Port Alberni Bombers have joined – with six teams in the North Division and five in the South including the Panthers.

This expansion appears even more remarkable considering the COVID-19 pandemic continues to take a toll on audience-based businesses, including sports leagues around the world. The addition of two teams to a league relying heavily on bums-in-seats can only be read as a sign of confidence.

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“I was really surprised in the interest,” Zubersky said. “There were a lot of people calling about adding teams.”

Current COVID-19 rules permit up to 200 fans, or 50 per cent of the seating at the Panthers’ home den at Panorama. New public health measures announced this week mean fans must wear masks and show proof of vaccination starting Sept. 13.

The Panthers were in the middle of a tight playoff series against the Victoria Cougars when the start of the pandemic abruptly ended the season in March 2020. Months later, the league suspended play in the fall of 2020, then pulled the plug completely in March 2021.

While case counts are rising again, circumstances are different following the widespread introduction of vaccines.

“We encouraged our players like two-and-a-half months ago to get vaccinated,” Zubersky said. “We didn’t make it mandatory. We just really encouraged everyone, because we could sort of see this coming.”

That effort paid off as 100 per cent of staff, management and players are vaccinated as part of the proactive campaign to prevent any future stoppages.

As the team prepares for its home opener, early results are promising as the Panthers have won two of three exhibition games. Zubersky likes what he sees from his team of 23, all but two of whom come from Greater Victoria. Nine players hail from the Saanich Peninsula, having played in the Peninsula Minor Hockey Association.

“I think we have a pretty good club,” he said. “So from a competitive performance standpoint, we are really excited about the upcoming season.”

The Panthers look to add a new spark to their offence, as Tanner Wort (42 goals in 48 games in 2019-20) and Josh Lingard (30 goals in 46 games) have moved on.

“Those are two huge holes in our roster, but that is the way the junior game works and other guys fill in,” Zubersky said. “Our defence is back and most of our forwards are back.”

RELATED: VIJHL pulls plug on 2020-21 season

New additions give reasons for optimism, like forward Payton Braun, brother of the Panthers’ Riley Braun.

“He is a big-bodied kid. He has a heavy shot and he is going to be an exciting addition to our lineup,” Zubersky said.

Also joining the Panthers is forward Davey Moody, who played with the White Rock Whalers last year.

He is now pursuing a business degree at the University of Victoria, where the Brauns are both studying dentistry.

“So we managed to pick (Moody) up and I think he is going to be a real treat.”

The Panthers will play 52 games, facing North Division opponents twice each and South Division rivals 10 times each.

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