Take a minute. That’s all they ask, and given why, who can say no?
With earnest faces and wide teenaged eyes, some needing a shave, some for whom a razor is still a rumour, one by one they look into the camera, hockey gear hanging behind them and encourage us to take the briefest moment for a kind gesture or a good deed, to check in on a friend to make sure everything is okay, and be there for them if it’s not.
It’s a message and a hashtag — #takeaminute — packed with power. Not because it is being delivered by the AAA Minor Midget Don Mills Flyers – almost unquestionably the best team of 15-year-old hockey players on the planet, a collection of talent that will doubtless show up on OHL rosters and filter through World Junior teams and into the NHL in the coming years.
No, the message matters not because of what they have and will accomplish, but because of what they’ve been through and how they and the community around them responded.
The Flyers – DMF as they’re known around the Greater Toronto Hockey League and beyond – have won almost everything there is to win since they were Peewees – three straight league titles; two provincial championships, countless tournaments. Last season alone they were 62-8-5, and they’re better this year. Hopeful agents, NCAA recruiters and OHL scouts pack the rinks when they play.
But last March they suffered a loss they could never imagine or prepare for. Their goalie and team heartbeat, Roy Pejcinovksi, 14, was murdered along with his younger sister Vana, 13, and their mother Krissy in her Ajax home. Krissy’s former boyfriend was charged and is pending trial. Left behind were Roy’s father, Vas, and his older sister, Victoria, who would have been with them that morning were it not for a driving lesson.
The Flyers were in the middle of their league final, a berth in the provincial championships on the line and their world was torn inside out. Instead of going over the power play they were meeting with grief counsellors.
What to do? There was no playbook. In the short term, they kept going.
“For our team, everybody loves to be on the ice, it’s a safe space, almost a haven,” says Ethan Mistry, a defenceman and the Flyers’ captain. “The day it happened we had a practice booked so it was either sit at home alone or we come to the rink and see if everyone wants to practice. We got together in the room and people just started getting dressed.”
They didn’t lose a game the rest of the year, won the provincial title and are 27-0 to start this season.
Life doesn’t stop at the rink, though. As their grief slowly receded the challenge became: What to do next?
For parents, coaches, the minor hockey community at large and — most importantly — for a shattered family, the question was how to extract some good — a lesson, some meaning, something lasting — out of something so senseless and wrong.
On Thursday night at a banquet hall in Vaughan came proof that with enough love and sunshine a bouquet can come flowering out of the tiniest crack in the pavement. The event was the first of what organizers hope will be the annual KRV Pejcinovski Legacy Gala.
Over 600 tickets sold out weeks in advance. Brian Burke came and Don Cherry dropped in via video. Elliotte Friedman of Hockey Night in Canada was the ring leader and comedian Gerry Dee of Mr. D fame did a spontaneous and hilarious set about his own experiences as a minor hockey coach for an audience who had lived through every crazy moment he riffed on. Toronto Maple Leafs Garrett Sparks and Zach Hyman held court. The bar was open and the food was good. The fund-raising auction was fevered and the early accounting suggests that $200,000 was raised – blowing through organizers’ most optimistic projections (with donations still being accepted).
There was silence – save for muffled sobs – and then an ovation when Vas and Victoria stood in front of the crowd of friends and family and supporters (including a table of first-responders) and Vas made an effort to thank everyone, to remember Krissy – ‘their glue’; Vana ‘my light’ and Roy – ‘my best friend.’
“They taught me that kindness doesn’t give up,” he said. “And I promise all of you here tonight, I never will.”
It took months before anyone was ready to get to this point, to begin considering how to move forward, how to make sure a family was remembered and a grieving team of boys and the community around them could meaningfully honour their teammate and his family. But brainstorming started taking place in July and the ideas began to flow.
“Vas’ perspective has always been you have to move forward with positive things and do positive things,” said Sunil Mistry, Ethan’s father and one of a large committee of volunteer organizers. “He said ‘I would like to do something that has a legacy for my family.”
They now have in place a memorial fund aimed at charities focusing on domestic violence and initiatives supporting sport and play for underprivileged children. They have a video and a message and a hashtag that carries weight.
“It happened, we miss them dearly, it was a tragedy, we know we can’t bring them back,” Vas said to me. “ Fading away in the darkness is not going to do them any good. An event like this, showing all the love and support we had just brings their names up in love.”
A new hockey season started and slowly the Flyers began to move ahead in their new normal, trying to find the balance between remembering their friend and the moment-to-moment focus ambitious young athletes need as they enter their last year of minor hockey with the OHL draft as their graduation.
“It’s not a lesson you want them to have to learn at 14, that the world isn’t always nice,” says Flyers head coach Marc Slawson, who started with a team of nine-year-olds in in minor Atom and built a powerhouse. “You can’t hide from it. We don’t pretend that it didn’t happen … so the message has been to go and prove the character you have by playing to your ability and going through the process the right way and having the right attitude and honouring Roy … There is nothing that can be thrown at these guys that they can’t handle. I’m convinced of that.”
They remember their teammate in little ways whenever they can. They wear Roy’s number 74 on a patch on their jerseys and after a recent 7-4 win over the Toronto Marlies, a long-time rival, Slawson noted the score and reminded his team:
At an age where baritones and sopranos can share the same dressing room, providing endless comic fodder, Roy’s voice never dropped, one quality of his among many that has been kept alive.
Before every game the Flyers gather in the middle of the dressing room for a ‘Who are we? … Flyers’ chant. Then Liam Arnsby, a high-scoring centre and a teammate of Roy’s since novice, always makes his way to the sink to soak his hair.
“Arns, got the shower goin’?” forward Ed Moskowitz asks.
The answer comes back in the affirmative. In years past Roy would then ask the same question — a couple of notes higher — and the answer would come back the same, but with a teasing, squeaky-voiced reply.
Tension broken, they hit the ice.
The ritual is the same now but they leave a three-second moment of silence where Roy’s call out would be.
“[Losing Roy] was really hard for us to take but we’ve always had a strong bond as a team and it was made even closer through this because of what everyone had to go through together,” says Ethan. “It’s never a sad thing [when we remember him] it’s: let’s do it for him, let’s live it out for him.”
The video is one more tribute. It was the brainstorm of Ethan’s Mom, Jennifer Dettman, and with so many voices, it means different things.
“Every time he came to the rink he had a smile on his face,” says Ethan. “So the one thing I would take away is to try and be more positive as I go through life and if anyone I knew was going through anything or feeling down on a particular day, I would be there to help them, just like Roy was.”
Said Slawson, the head coach, “I’m sure there were moments that Roy saw or experienced that were not very good … maybe we could have red-flagged it more. But he never said anything or hinted that things were wrong.
“[So] the message I take is the boys are trying to say: Ask your friends, be aware, check in and make sure your friends are happy. It may not seem like anything is wrong or it might not seem like much, but you never know.”
It’s a powerful subject for a group of 15-year-old hockey players to deal with and no easier for parents, families, friends or coaches. But the Flyers and those around them have been left with little choice but to deal with it head on and are so far succeeding. The team was at the gala, too, all in matching 74 jerseys with Pejcinovski across their shoulders. They wiped their tears away during the video tributes and hung on every word of Roy’s father’s speech. They stayed right until the very end.
“When I saw the video the boys did it absolutely touched me,” said Vas. “It’s such a brilliant message because I wish I had another minute sometimes, you know? I wish I had that minute to give them that extra hug to say the nice thing, sometimes we don’t realize what tomorrow brings us.
“Take that minute to hug your kid, take that minute to love somebody, take a minute to help somebody. It’s the right message. It really means something.
“I love it.’”
Time doesn’t stop, the Don Mills Flyers know that now, and it can’t be turned back.
But everyone has a minute.