Pete Zubersky takes pride in a hockey program that is known for its commitment to local players.
This season, there are 11 players on the local Junior B Peninsula Panthers on a roster of 24. Each came up through Peninsula Minor Hockey. Zubersky, the Panther’s coach and general manager, says that’s not the most the certainly not the least number of local players to make it on the team.
It’s part of the club’s overall philosophy — to give Peninsula-based players a shot at playing junior hockey, improving their skills and taking the game as far as tey can.
“There have been some kids on the team that might not have gotten the chance to play junior hockey,” Zubersky said during a team practice.
That fact can lead to some wild swings in terms of talent on the ice and the team’s overall record, but it’s a reality that Zubersky said he’s used to — and something that everyone within the Panther’s program, including fans, has to come to terms with.
“The philosophy is to develop the team, develop the players,” he explained. “We do this throughout the regular season, when it’s not so much about winning and losing.”
Come the playoffs, he continued, the attitude changes only slightly as the team looks to ice the best possible players they have.
It’s a system, said Zubersky, that has earned respect in the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League (VIJHL) and among the Panthers’ affiliate teams and programs.
It all started when a young, undersized player named Jamie Benn came to the team. Zubersky said in his short time here, Benn grew — both as a player and physically — and was picked up by higher level clubs en route to a successful NHL career.
The system keeps moving forward, Zubersky said, noting other players have been able to move up the ranks of hockey after short stops on the Peninsula.
Building this system, he said, starts with good coaches and administrators within the Peninsula Minor Hockey Association. He keeps an eye on good Midget-level players and maintains an open invitation to those kids. Three are invited every Monday to practice with the Panthers. As an affiliate, the Midget team is also mined for talent during the season.
“It’s a goal for some of those players to move up,” said Zubersky. “a lot of those kids from PMHA have played with the Panthers and when they come here, they are already comfortable.”
Two PMHA products on this season’s Panthers’ roster are Kai Turner, 18, and Kyle Richardson, 20. Both have been with the Junior B squad for a couple years and enjoy the team atmosphere.
“It was one of my goals to be with the Panthers,” Richardson said. “It’s nice to be able to play so close to home.”
The connection he made with the team while in minor hockey helped him make the transition to junior, he said, and along the way he got to know the fans.
Turner said the team is very positive, a good group of guys within a program that’s not all about the business end of hockey. He said minor hockey here prepared him well for the jump to the Panthers.
And although the team’s record isn’t the best this season so far (4-19-0 as of Nov. 19), Turner said fans can expect more from this team.
“I think we’ll surprise some people,” he said.
Zubersky said last year’s Panthers, while sticking with the local player philosophy, was one of the best in the province at its level.
Success on the ice ebbs and flows, he admitted, adding the team is starting to win this season after a slow start.
But he noted the club always wins when it puts young players first.