LITTLE CURRENT—Friday, November 10 saw a double honorary event take place at the Little Current Arena. A hockey game was played and a supper was held in honour of Remembrance Day and past players from the 31-year history of the Manitoulin Panthers.  

The lasagna supper was catered by Jennifer Recollet Shawana in order to raise funds for emergencies that might occur among former players. A few years ago, former Panthers star defenceman Lucus Little developed a serious illness. At that time an emergency alumni game and silent auction was organized by Cathy Wilkin of Little Current and her friends. Consequently, a substantial amount of aid was raised to assist Lucus with his successful recovery. The thinking now is to have funds available for an unexpected emergency event. The Panthers at this time have more than 300 alumni developed over their 31-year history.

A very successful event was organized by the hardworking Kevin Smith with the assistance of Panther President Kevin Eshkawkogan—the two Kevins did a remarkable job with the supper, silent auction and memorial game.

Huge crowds came out for the game, to support the Panther alumni and to watch some great hockey.

Many dignitaries were in attendance with much of the event recognizing the service of our military at home and abroad. A ceremonial puck drop was carried out at centre ice by Captain Kurt Marion, an Afghanistan veteran. The “oldest” Panther, Peter Eshkawkogan (Wiikwemkoong), took the face off for the past Panthers. The Panthers were outfitted in military styled camouflaged sweaters to suit the occasion. The jerseys also had a bright red poppy over the heart area on the left hand side. The ceremonial puck was presented by Eshkawkogan to Captain Marion. Other veterans acknowledged and in attendance were Corporal (Retired) Jim McCallister (Bosnia and Afghanistan), Master Seaman (Retired) Kevin Smith (East Timor), Warrant Officer (Retired) Ed Marshall (Golan Heights) and Sergeant Ghislain Cotton, Cd.

Other notable guests were MP Carol Hughes, MPP Mike Mantha (who donned a Panther sweater and assisted on the bench). Al McNevin, mayor of NEMI, and Kevin Eshkawkogan, president of the Panther Association succeeding past President Craig Abotossaway.

A good crowd witnessed the drop and took in the game which was played against the Espanola Express Jr A team of the NOJHL.

Afghanistan veteran Captain Kurt Marion drops the ceremonial puck at the game.

Prior to the game the Novice (7-8-years-old) were allowed into the Alumni dressing room. It was quite a sight to see the little guys and gals sporting their new Panthers jerseys as they circulated in the former Jr. A Wild/Islanders home. There were many wide-eyed “munchkins” who were mesmerized by the “big guys” who were their predecessors. They were not shy about asking questions either. To them these were hockey heroes because they had shone in previous Panthers eras. The age of the Alumni ranged from 18 to 46. To be an alumni a player must have completed his Midget eligibility. One little gentleman inquired if there were any left wingers in the room. When an Alumni left winger responded the tiny Panther said “you must be good then.” However, when the Alumni player answered ‘15’ when asked what his number was, the little fellow said “ok,” turned his back and walked away with #7 prominently displayed on his back. The novice players were intrigued with the size of sticks, skates and helmets. There were a good number of “high fives” between with novice players and the alumni. It was a great motivating experience for the young ones, one of whom expressed the hope that the alumni game would still exist when he “graduated” from the Panther organization.

The “old guys” dressing room was a picture of memories and old stories. Most players were grinning, telling funny stories from the ‘80s, ‘90s etc and generally having a happy time. The spirit in the room was very high and uplifting. The banter was extremely positive and heartwarming for us old coaches, Ron Cooper, Doug Mitchell and myself. The personalities of the alumni had not changed much from the time they skated in Atom, Pee Wee, Bantam and Midget teams. Those times were truly special. I had not witnessed such smiles from players such as Eshkawkogan, my own son Scott, Jacob Stadnyk, Todd Fox and the King brothers from quite some time. The leader, when it came to smiles and laugher, though, was former defenceman John Mitchell, who beamed from ear to ear reminiscing and telling jokes. John saved a goal in the second period by the taking out the net after a hard charge in that direction. It was good to see that John and the others hadn’t lost their competitive spirit.

The game started on a positive note from the home side as Jacob Stadnyk scored the opening goal of the game. The first 10 to 12 minutes of the game was fast and furious as the alumni made every attempt to match their Bantam/Midget speed of years ago. The puck handling skills were still there though a little slower and the passing experience was obvious.

For a 3 to 4 minute stretch in the second half of the first period the locals reverted to their age giving up 3 or 4 quick goals when they slowed skating and forgot how to pass. Though they exited the ice down 5-1 after the first period the Alumni spirit was not dampened. Talk in the dressing room was somewhat of a “confession” as many asked “forgiveness” for their errors or openly described their colossal errors which they analyzed themselves. Nonetheless, the mood was jovial! They returned to the ice as if it were a new game. Though they dropped the game by an 11-8 score they were uplifted by the fact that they had won the last two periods. The old hockey spirit existed as a few said “let’s play ‘em again”. Hockey players never lose that competitive spirit!

The feeling on the bench during those last two periods was extremely jovial as the “oldsters” realized that they could score goal for goal with the young Jr A squad. The ages of the Express players ranged from 16-20. Everyone on our side was impressed with the respect shown to them by the Espanola players and coaches. The Panthers organization sends a chi-miigwech to the Express for the important and necessary part in this night of fun hockey. Their presence not only proved a worthy opponent but drew people to the supper and games which helped enormously with the Alumni fund.

On an interesting side note, “oldster” Peter Eshkawkogan was determined to score for his children. The man still has the hands as he managed to put two goals for the Panthers and came within a whisker of completing the hat trick! You still have it, Peach!

Parents that I talked to after the contest were pleased and excited to have their sons look back on the ice, some after a very long time. Dr. Andy and Lois Stadnyk were especially happy to see their boy Jacob back on the ice surface. They explained that they enjoyed the experience as much as their son. Jacob, for his part was amazed at how nervous he was until he stepped on the ice, as soon as he did the nervousness disappeared and he said he was full of energy and excitement. As was Annette King pleased to witness her two sons Tyler and Cole together against the Express. Cole scored the coolest goal of the night on a between-the-legs shot that caught the Espanola goaltender completely off guard. Doug and Ann Mitchell were also enthused with the idea of having the boys back together and as I have already mentioned above, son John was a delight in the dressing room.

Another interesting point was the combination of Devin Lockeyer playing for the Alumni while father Greg was one of the officials.

Following the exhibition, the Panthers provided a lunch for the Express and any Alumni that chose and had the time to go. To top off the most gracious host Kevin Smith presented each player and coach with coffee cups monogrammed with their name and an inscription commemorating the teams and the date of the game. Great job, Kevin!

Members of the Alumni were: Scott Hughson, Scott Stephens (who unfortunately injured his knee in the first period and had to leave the game), Jacob Stadnyk, Scott Leblanc, Tyler King, Cole King, Peter Eshkawkogan, Ryan Corbiere, Devin Lockeyer, Jesse Peltier, Linny Peltier, John Mitchell, Todd Fox, Jacob Trudeau, Brandon Corbiere, Mitchell Payette and Tyler Abotossaway.

Unfortunately, three Alumni were unable to attend, one of them being the very personable Scott Madahbee who was stuck in Toronto finishing off his 3rd piece of apple pie at Fran’s restaurant! (He’ll be there next year.) The other players not able to attend were Brian Corbiere and Andy Recollet.

We would also like to salute our national anthem singer, young Lena Trudeau of Wiikwemkoong who did a great job belting out O Canada to everyone’s delight. This was followed by a minute of silence for former original Panther Alfie McLeod who passed away recently. Alfie was a good humoured and solid defenceman for the 1988 Midget NDHL Champions. He would have loved to have been a part of this great event.

To close, let me congratulate the Manitoulin Panthers executive which includes: President Kevin Eshkawkogan; Past President Craig Abotossaway (who did much to raise the level of Panthers hockey during his tenure); Jason Hughson, vice president; Marcie Hughson, treasurer; Tanya Hughson, ice convenor; Marg Moody, treasurer; Kevin Smith, corporate fundraiser director and Scott Stephens, development director.

What a great motivator for the current Panthers!

Manitoulin Panthers, past and present, join together for a group photo prior to the alumni game last Friday at the Northeast Town Recreation Centre held in honour of Remembrance Day.
photos by Robin Burridge