During what was the last game of the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League during the 2019-2020 season, Panthers Josh Lingard (#8) drives towards the Cougars’ net during last week’s 3-2 loss in the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League (VIJHL)’s South Division playoff round. Hours later, the season ended after Hockey Canada cancelled all “sanctioned activities, including our national championships, until further notice, effective immediately.” (Gordon Lee/Submitted)

Peninsula Panthers won’t let COVID-19 define best winning season in history

General manager Pete Zubersky said the team will take an economic hit

The Peninsula Panthers were looking to turn around the team’s playoff series against the Victoria Cougars last Friday. Now, they are left contemplating an historic season cancelled by events beyond their control.

Like every organization, the Junior B hockey team is grappling with the effects of COVID-19 as its ongoing spread caused Hockey Canada to cancel all sanctioned events, including the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League playoffs, last week.

The Panthers were scheduled to play Game 3 of their South Division final at Panorama Recreation Centre after having lost their opening two games.

Pete Zubersky, the team’s general manager, said he told players that the season’s cancellation needs to be put into perspective.

“It’s disappointing, but with everything that is going on, our little pain is nothing compared to what the next three to four months will show,” he said. “I think everybody kind of bought into that.”

RELATED: Peninsula Panthers drop opening game of playoff series against Victoria Cougars

Before the abrupt end of the season, the Panthers considered themselves down but not out against the Cougars. After losing their opening game of the series 5-2, the Panthers bounced back with a strong performance Wednesday, only to narrowly lose 3-2.

“I don’t consider last night a low,” said Zubersky Thursday morning, hours before the cancellation. “When we left the game Sunday, I was really disappointed. But when I left last night, I felt good about the series, as strange as that is,” he said. “This far from over.” Hours later, it was.

With a home crowd behind them, the Panthers were counting on Friday’s game to get into the series, and Zubersky said the players genuinely thought that they would come back. Yet Friday night, the waiting lobby outside the rink was empty, except for a single, elderly man.

“I talked to this fellow, and he said, ‘I come down every Friday night for hockey, and I knew there was no game, but I didn’t know what to do, so I came down,’” said Zubersky. “And on that Friday, against the Victoria Cougars in Round 2, there would have been a line-up right past the concessions [into the parking lot].”

The cancellation of the season will have an economic effect with the long-term consequences yet to emerge.

“We are going to get beat up by it, but I think a lot of people are going to be beat up by it,” he said, confident teams will economically survive the pandemic. “In our league, most teams can at least break even. We tried to put some dollars away in case something bad happens. I obviously never thought that this would happen.”

Zubersky, naturally, had other ideas heading into the season. For a while, the Panthers were unbeatable, and while the Victoria Cougars eventually finished ahead of them, the Panthers still played the best season in their history with 70 points after winning 35 out of 48 games, with league-leading scorer Tanner Wort (86 points, including 42 goals) claiming the league’s most-valuable-player title.

It is this success that Zuberksy wants to remember above all.

“I don’t want COVID-19 to define our season,” he said. “Those kids had an unbelievable season. The fans were into it, and it was really a lot of fun to come to the rink, and I don’t want to the virus define our season.”


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