When it comes to junior hockey, we often have high expectations for the teenagers involved. Whether it’s success and failure at the world juniors or the pressures of the NHL draft, it’s important to lean back sometimes and remember how young these players are. This became incredibly apparent to me when speaking to members of the Don Mills Flyers, the Toronto-based squad that just won the OHL Cup – the prestigious tournament that brings together the best Ontario minor midget teams (and a couple American squads) at the end of the year.
This Don Mills edition was no ordinary team. In March 2018, their starting goaltender, Roy Pejcinovski, was murdered. His mother, Krissy, and sister Vana were killed in the same incident just east of the city in the town of Ajax. Krissy’s sometimes boyfriend is currently going through the courts for the triple homicide (another sister, Victoria, was not home at the time).
Incredibly, the Flyers finished the year with a provincial title while still reeling from the tragedy. Coach Marc Slawson believes that the arena became a place of sanctuary for the kids, who were all about 14 at the time. “We all grew as people,” said defenseman Brandt Clarke. “Maybe it was too early, but it was a good learning lesson for all of us. Not many people go through that.”
It’s a statement both brave and heartrending, but it’s clear the Flyers would not forget Pejcinovski. This season, the team put forth one of the most dominant performances imaginable, winning more than 70 games, tying a few and losing just once – in overtime, in the final of the Silver Stick tournament against a similarly excellent Detroit Compuware team. The feat is made all the more impressive by the fact Don Mills plays in the Greater Toronto League (GTHL), the best youth hockey circuit in the world.
Of course, the OHL Cup final was no walk in the park. The Flyers went down early to the Toronto Red Wings, surrendering three goals in the first period and trailing 4-1 just one minute into the second frame. But the loaded squad, which featured OHL exceptional-status recipient Shane Wright, would not bow out. And it did kinda seem like there was some magic behind them.
With the score at 4-3, Toronto winger Noah Filice was sprung for a partial breakaway. He unleashed a wicked shot, only to see it clang off the post behind Don Mills goalie Sergei Litvinov, who had replaced starter Anson Thornton after the third Red Wings goal. Don Mills got the next goal and later won the game 6-5 in overtime.
The fact Litvinov was even playing for Don Mills is incredible. Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, the youngster moved to Yaroslavl, where his father knew members of the KHL Lokomotiv team that perished in the 2011 plane crash. Litvinov’s mask features the Lokomotiv logo on the front, while his No. 35 is a tribute to goalie Stefan Liv, who was set to make his first start with the team on that ill-fated road trip.
Even more beguiling is the fact Litvinov knew Pejcinovski. Three years before his tragic death, Pejcinovski reached out on Instagram to his Russian counterpart because they had the same breed of terrier. When Litvinov wanted to come to Canada to play hockey this season, a family friend sent a two-minute highlight video to Slawson. “I took it to a couple of goalie coaches, and he looked very athletic,” Slawson said. “We were very comfortable with Anson in net if he had to be the No. 1, so we thought, ‘What do we have to lose?’ We never even met Sergei until August. We call that part of the ‘Roy Effect.’ Roy is looking down on us, making sure all those little decisions go in our direction.”
In the end, Wright set up left winger Brennan Othmann for the championship-winning goal in what easily could’ve been the team’s second loss of the year. “I won’t lie, this is the storybook end to the season,” Slawson said. “If we didn’t get this one, it would have hurt, it would have stung.”
Since the murders, the Don Mills Flyers have kept in touch with Roy’s father, Vas, and he visited the team several times a month during the season. They recently had a service marking the one-year anniversary of the tragedy, and it’s fair to say they will never forget their lost goaltender. “He was a really big key to our team last year,” said Othmann, one of Pejcinovski’s closest friends on the team. “You couldn’t get the puck past him, he was an amazing goalie, and we miss him very much. Every game we fought for him.”
Even with all the skill they had, clinching that OHL Cup wasn’t easy for Don Mills. But given what the Flyers have gone through, it’s amazing they made this season look as easy as they did.