For now, the focus of Riley Braun, his brother Payton and their teammate Logan Speirs fall squarely on the Peninsula Panthers’ playoff series against the Westshore Wolves in the first round of the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey (VIJHL) playoffs.
But to borrow a line from Casablanca, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of their lives, the trio will remember the past season as a period of historic accomplishment on the ice, forever shadowed by the tragic death of their teammate Grant Gilbertson.
Riley finished the regular season as VIJHL’s all-time leader in scoring in the modern era and broke the single-season scoring record in claiming the Doug Morton Trophy as best scorer and the Jamie Benn Trophy as the most valuable player. Payton won the Larry Lamoureaux Trophy for rookie of the year while Speirs won the Mac MacWilliams Memorial Trophy for unsung hero. And the league’s recognition of the Panthers did not stop with their best forward line. Defender Matthew Seale won the Clayton Stoner Award for top defenceman while Brad Tippett won the Eddie “The Storm” Kingston Award for coach of the year.
In short, 2021-22 will be a special vintage in the trophy box of the Panthers, as a franchise and for players like the Braun brothers and Speirs.
Owner and general manager Pete Zubersky said the combined success of the Braun brothers and Speirs defies categorization. “When you watch them, the chemistry between them is unbelievable,” said Zubersky. “They just know what they are doing.”
This chemistry has two ingredients. The first is the familiarity between Riley and Speirs, who have played with each other since they were children.
“Riley and I will always know where we are on the ice, where to put the puck, and where we are going to be,” Speirs said. “And Payton just caught on. He is a super-smart kid. He knows the game very well. He picks up on what we do and adds his own stuff. It makes for a great trio.”
The second is the fraternal tie between Riley and younger brother Payton. While the brothers had played with each other in the past, their hockey careers took divergent paths when Payton decided to play recreational house rather than follow the development of his older brother.
“When it got to contact hockey, I wasn’t really into that, so I went to play house hockey and my dad coached me there,” said Payton, who also enjoys mountain biking and tennis among a wide variety of sports.
Payton became a more familiar figure around the Panthers during their first COVID-19 season, serving as a volunteer. “When I was 18 on the Panthers, he (Payton) would come out to practices and stuff like that,” said Riley of his brother. “So he would also be around the rink with the team.”
This meant he fit in easily when he formally joined the team after an appeal from Zubersky, who had pointed out to him that brother Riley would be going into his last season of eligibility, an opportunity not to be missed.
“I want to have one last year playing with him, so I tried out and made it,” said Payton, who didn’t have any high expectations heading into the season. “I was a bit skeptical of the decision at the start of the year, in September, but this has been a super special year and it is something I will never forget … I am sure we will both tell our kids stories about it, playing together and scoring a lot of goals.”
And they have scored goals, with Riley recording 43 goals, just two more than his brother. Their centre — Speirs — had an equally phenomenal regular season with 103 points, 67 of them being assists, to finish second in league scoring with Payton finishing fifth.
“It feels quite surreal, honestly,” said Speirs. “On every team, there is a top line or a top player. But for some reason this year, with Riley, Payton and I, from the very beginning we just clicked and we never really went through any dry spells or nights off.”
At one stage, Speirs recorded points in 43 straight games, an unprecedented streak.
“I have been around junior hockey forever and I have never seen that,” said Zubersky in pointing to Speirs’ passing skills and speed, complementing the more robust wing play of the Braun brothers.
“Payton and I aren’t necessarily slow, but we are definitely not speedsters,” said Riley. “He brings that extra dynamic. He is really good defensively in his own end.”
This personal success happens in an environment that sees players compete hard while celebrating each other’s successes. “Hands-down, the best part is the perfect balance between always wanting to win and always giving it your all, but making sure that you are having fun along the way,” said Speirs. “We are always keeping it light, but in a professional kind of manner.”
This balance points to a broader shift. Whereas players in the past saw VIJHL as a stepping stone, the current focus lies on developing the whole person. The Panthers’ roster is full of players who are pursuing high-end, professional degrees in fields such as business, engineering or in the case of Riley and Payton, dentistry, all while combing their studies with the discipline and dedication of sports.
“They all have a passion for hockey,” said Zubersky. “But they are really well adjusted and I think that is coming through.”
Riley’s success raises the obvious question: does he have a future in professional hockey? While reaching that level is a tall task by any measure, Riley and the rest of the team tasted this very possibility the other day when they heard from current Toronto Maple Leafs assist coach and former Panther Spencer Carbery, who had called to congratulate Payton on his rookie season.
“I really do enjoy hockey, but I don’t know if I could do it for a living,” said Riley. “Part of the reason why I chose to play for the Panthers so long is that so many friends are on my team and guys I grew up with. So I really enjoy that part of hockey. But I think I am more of a person who likes to play recreational hockey once I have aged out. Obviously, when you are little, every kid in Canada wants to be an NHL player. Obviously, I did want to be an NHL player when I was 10 or 11 years old, but you eventually figure out what you want to do.”
Zubersky hopes Riley finds his way back into the Panthers’ fold as a coach once he has followed his parents into dentistry.
“Looking back on it in the months and years ahead, I think no matter what happens, I think I will be proud of what happened in the regular season. But also at the end of the day, the regular season is just preparation for the playoffs,” Riley said.
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