The records will show the Peninsula Panthers lost their home game on Jan. 7 against the Victoria Cougars 5-2 in Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League (VIJHL) action. But this score will remain a side note as players from both teams and an emotionally charged audience honoured the life of 18-year-old Panther Grant Gilbertson, who died on Jan. 3 in a car crash.
Gilbertson’s grandfather Don Colegrave read a four-page speech during a pre-game ceremony that also included videotaped testimonials from Edmonton Oilers head coach Dave Tippett (the brother of Panthers’ head coach Brad Tippett), Oiler star Connor McDavid, as well NHLers Tyson Barrie and Matt Irwin, who played minor hockey in Greater Victoria.
Pete Zubersky, Panthers’ general manager and owner, said in an open letter to the community that Colegrave’s speech did not leave a dry eye in the house.
The two teams later shook hands after the game, then distributed a small gift for each and every fan in memory of Gilbertson. The audience included, among others, Gilbertson’s mother Darcie Colegrave and girlfriend Sadie Fitzpatrick, who visited the Panthers’ locker room to give each player a rose with a note that included the players’ respective numbers and an inscription that read “#26 Grant Gilbertson A Panther Forever.”
Garrett Gilbertson, Grant’s older brother, also joined his mother and his late brother’s girlfriend during the occasion.
“My favourite moment of the evening occurred when Darcie told me she was so happy that the family came and she expressed how important the evening was to them,” Zubersky said. “She gave me some real peace when I was trying to be the one to provide the same to her.”
Looking at the result, Zubersky said he thought the Panthers played well enough to win, but could not pull it off as the Panthers’ win streak ends at eight games.
Leading 3-2 after two periods, the Cougars capped the game with two goals in the third period, including an empty-netter, to push their lead in the South Division to three points, having played three fewer games.
Overall, the Panthers had won 16 out of the 18 games prior to Gilbertson’s death and Friday’s loss.
The Panthers now face a compressed schedule following the postponement of one game before and one game after Friday’s matchup. Their lineup will also look different in other ways after the team traded defender Griffin Gilmour for Saanich Predator forward Kyle Brown mid-week last week in anticipation of a deep playoff run.
“The closing chapter has yet to be written on our season but no matter what that chapter reads, unquestionably Grant’s death will be the most significant moment for our club this year and in fact, for the past 20 years since Panthers’ player Steve Simpson was tragically taken from all of us in a motor vehicle accident back on Nov. 2, 2001,” said Zubersky, who used the occasion of his open letter to praise his team.
“To our group of young men in our dressing room and that includes Griffin, I could not be more proud of the way each and every one of you have responded since Monday night,” Zubersky said. “You have reacted to this tragedy in such a mature, responsible, compassionate manner, when I know all of your hearts are breaking. Your support for Grant’s family and for each other has been absolutely remarkable and amazing and even the thought of it brings tears to my eyes and warmth to my heart.”
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