Fans or no fans, the Pelham Panthers are prepared to play this season.
Panthers owner, director of hockey operations and general manager Tim Toffolo says the Panthers are willing to play in an empty arena if need be should the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League begin play in December.
The GOJHL has submitted a proposal to begin play Dec. 2 with a maximum of 30 percent capacity of fans per venue pending government approval.
“We’re ready to play with no fans if we have to,” Toffolo said. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s about the kids this year and having them develop. That may not be the perception other organizations have, but that’s mine. These kids can’t have a year without hockey because where does that put them next year?
“If we can make sure we can develop them and they don’t lose a step, that’s what our goal is.”
The Panthers, who averaged 288 fans per game over 25 dates last season, hit the ice for the first time as a full team earlier this month at the Pelham Meridian Centre.
“It’s been stressful for sure, but there’s been a lot of hard work done by everybody in the organization,” Pelham head coach Chris Johnstone said. “We started back in July with eight and then went to 15 and most recently 25.
“The kids have been great. They just want to be on the ice through all of this uncertainty and that’s what we’re providing.”
Toffolo said he’s proud of the work put in by the organization to ensure the players are as safe as possible under the current conditions.
“For us to be where we are, I think we’re years ahead of any other organization as far as what we’ve done and are doing,” he said. “We have the space to do it and we’ve done a lot of planning.”
The Panthers have plenty of ice time for development with three mandatory hours per week plus an optional hour Monday as well as the ice time normally allotted for their home games Sunday afternoon.
“We’ve made the commitment to these kids and the families that we’re going to do everything we can to train them for the year,” Toffolo said. “That, right now, is what we can promise. We can provide them with ice time and skill training and development but after that, we’ll have to see what happens. Hopefully we can return to play sooner rather than later.”
Johnstone, who will be assisted by his son, Carson Johnstone, and Christian Wiley, is mindful of the unique situation of having three months to practice before the first game.
“You just keep it interesting. If we’re lucky enough to start Dec. 2 then we’ll be ready,” he said. “We want to keep it fun and structured to a point. Two or three months from now, they’re going to get tired of listening to the coaching staff.
“We need to keep it alive with some drills and scrimmages. There’s not a whole lot to do for anybody right now so the focus is on the club and how they’re coming together.”
The Panthers, who finished in sixth spot with a 17-31-2 record last season under Johnstone and his predecessor, Mark Barrick, return a dozen players: Devon Sanders, Philippe Angervil, Cody Miskolczi, Jack Merkosky, Jonah Devereux, Jordan Tutt, Julien Bianchi, Griffin Vaughan, Michael Hutchings, Jason Gee, Evan Gibbs, and Liam Sodtke.
Newcomers include goalies Brayden Kelso and Duncan Rolleman, forwards Joey Furlano and Alessandro Nicastro, and defencemen Zane Burleigh and Darcy Scott.
“We’ve been skating for a while so we’re quite happy with the guys we have coming back,” Toffolo said. “A few guy haven’t come down yet because they think they may have other options but I don’t know where they would be.”
Johnstone has embraced the situation.
“It’s really exciting. It’s different and odd. Some of the routine has been taken out of it and if you’re an old goat like me it’s different, it’s new stuff to handle and that’s good,” he said.
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