Angel Wings: The Legacy of Roy Pejcinovski Through the Eyes of His Friends
The afternoon of March 14th, 2018 was quite seasonal. It was cool, with a mix of rain and snow, a stark contrast to the ongoing events. The Toronto Marlboros and the Don Mills Flyers, two of the most storied franchises in the Greater Toronto Hockey League (GTHL), were entrenched in the heat of that year’s Under-15 AAA GTHL championship.
Anson Thornton, the starting goalie for the Marlboros, was sitting in the passenger seat of his car. En route to the Canlan Sports complex in Etobicoke for practice, Thornton spent the familiar commute scrolling through his phone and gazing out the window, doing his best to relax before hitting the ice.
Playoff hockey was upon him, and it had consumed most of his waking hours. He knew this wasn’t just any old playoff series.
For Thornton, going toe to toe with some of the best players in the province meant something, but squaring off against his good friend and fellow netminder Roy Pejcinovski, only took his focus to another level.
His phone rang, interrupting his slew of passing thoughts. It was one of his coaches.
“Did you see the news?”, his coach asked.
In truth, Thornton had seen the news. Before he left his house, he saw the “breaking news” alert flash across his television screen. There had been a murder in Ajax, but he didn’t give it any more thought. “I didn’t think it would be that close to us,” he recalls.
Pejcinovski, the starting goalie for the Don Mills Flyers, was murdered earlier that day. His mother, Krissy, and his 13-year old sister, Vana, were the other victims.
Thornton’s life was no longer just about hockey.
He had first met Pejcinovski when they were kids. Before they both made the jump to the GTHL, they were simply two young goalies, enjoying the excitement of minor hockey in the Greater Toronto Area. Thornton grew up playing in Oshawa, while Pejcinovski did the same in Ajax, only a few cities over. Growing up in close proximity to each other led the two to cross paths numerous times.
Practice had just ended for the Barrie Colts and Thornton was one of the first players off the ice. The sound of pucks ringing off posts and crossbars still echoed throughout Sadlon Arena.
“We always had a good rivalry,” he said with a smile, slouching a bit as he gazed back out at the ice.
Everywhere that hockey took them, Thornton and Pejcinovski somehow ended up together. Whether it was the infamous Brick Invitational hockey tournament, a notable spring hockey showcase that brings some of the best players in the province together, or high level goalie camps in the off season, their friendship grew beyond hockey.
Despite never playing on the same team, the pair always found time for each other. Whether it was spending the night at each other’s houses or cracking jokes at the bench during intermissions, hockey kept them together. Thornton admitted that he always tried to trash talk Pejcinovski, but his positivity quickly dismantled any attempt he made.
“He was always the happiest guy around and he never had anything bad to say. We had a great bond,” Thornton recalls happily. “Having a friend to play against on the other end made hockey more fun.”
The day of Pejcinovski’s passing was a blur for Thornton. Devastation and shock consumed him. All he could remember was his mom trying to calm him down. He sat, isolated in the parking lot of a rink he’d been to countless times, unsure of what to do next.
Practice was still scheduled for the Marlboros. Eventually Thornton creaked open the door to his dressing room. Tears flowed, confused conversations carried forward, silence came and went. The practice itself was turned into more of a skate. They didn’t do much, aside from playing music that they knew Pejcinovski would’ve liked.
It was uncomfortable, yes, but nobody wanted to be anywhere else. Despite being on the other side of the series, the Marlboros organization knew how much Pejcinovski’s life impacted the hockey community.
“Nobody really wanted to be there, but nobody really had a place to go,” Thornton remembers, slumping a little in his chair. His Arizona Coyotes hat, a nod to the team that signed him to his first NHL contract, pulled back his curled hair.
In the weeks and months that followed, the same phrases were put on repeat. Life is about ups and downs. Everything will be okay. Thornton dreaded this, still grieving at the loss of his friend, while still going through the motions of life and everything that hockey brought.
“I didn’t even want to think about the game anymore,” he recalls. “But I knew that deep down, Roy would want me to keep playing. I tried my hardest to use that as motivation.”
Pejcinovski’s passing didn’t just mark the end of a meaningful relationship in his life, but it also ripped out the joy of playing hockey. Unbeknownst to many at the time, Thornton had plans to join the Don Mills organization at the conclusion of that year’s playoff run. He needed a change of scenery, and the Flyers were willing to give him a shot, to let him battle in the crease against a familiar face.
After years of being on opposite ends of the ice, the time had finally come for Thornton and Pejcinovski to wear the same jersey. The thought of one day being goalie partners brought the two closer.
“We talked about it all the time. Roy was just super excited to finally get the chance to play together, to push each other everyday,” says Thornton.
When the leaves changed colour and the snow arrived, Thornton did find himself sporting the bright orange of the Don Mills Flyers. However this time, it was accompanied by a black sticker, outlining the letters “RP” on the back of his helmet. A movement that quickly caught on with other teams throughout the league.
Still feeling the weight of the tragedy, Thornton integrated seamlessly with his new Flyers teammates. Knowing that they had all been through the same emotions as him made it easier to build new friendships. Familiar faces emerged, and hockey soon resumed, only this time, the “do it for Roy” sentiment could be felt before, during and after every game.
Hockey shifted from being a sport to preserving a legacy.
After finishing out his GTHL career in a Flyers uniform, and with the same black sticker on his mask, Thornton added a more permanent design after he was drafted by the Ontario Hockey League’s Sarnia Sting. Adding the familiar moniker on the backplate of his mask was one of his biggest priorities prior to starting his OHL career. Now with the Barrie Colts, he’s sporting a similar look, with the same “RP74” engraving on his backplate. But this time around, they’re accompanied by angel wings. A decision that continues to pay tribute to Pejcinovski, as well as other members of his family who have passed on.
“Roy was a great goalie and I’m just trying to carry on his legacy,” says Thornton. “Writing it on my helmet and always thinking about him is so important to me.”
Ben West was just another kid. A high level goalie, but a kid at heart. He loved video games, and between his training sessions and hockey, he often found himself in his room, chatting with friends while seeing who could hit the best trick shot.
Much like Thornton, West knew Pejcinovski through hockey. They grew up together, with West spending his childhood in Whitby’s minor hockey system. A city that sits in between Pickering and Ajax, West found himself staring down the ice at Pejcinovski on more than one occasion.
After finally getting the chance to play together during the Brick Invitational tournament, he gravitated towards Pejcinovski’s outgoing personality.
“We instantly became really good friends,” he recalls, flashing a big smile. “Roy would always want to hang out to do something. He was never in a bad mood.” The video game Fortnite routinely came up in the conversations between them, and as West puts it, Pejcinovski always had the upper hand. His enthusiasm, whether online or in person, is what gravitated so many people towards him.
Bonding over both hockey and video games, the two progressed through the upper echelons of the sport together. Pejcinovski soon joined the Don Mills Flyers program, while West spent some time with a handful of notable GTHL teams.
On the day of the tragedy, he found himself in a familiar place. In his room, with the door closed, comedically yelling at his friends over a video game.
His dad’s contact name flashed across his phone.
“He didn’t tell me anything specifically,” West remembers, drawing the hood of his Barrie Colts branded sweater over his head. The sounds of pucks echoing off posts and crossbars had since been replaced by the steady hum of the zamboni. A handful of the lights in the arena had shut off, casting a deep shadow over the empty seats.
“He just said he had bad news and that he wanted to tell me in person.”
West still cringes when he thinks about the heartbreak he felt. “I couldn’t believe it. I was literally playing Fortnite with him the night before,” he recalls. A fitting nod to a passion they both shared.
In the days and weeks that came after, West struggled accepting that he was gone. His team had already been eliminated from playoff action, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
He didn’t want to be anywhere near a rink.
“I’d look for his name on my phone, or whenever I’d log on to play video games. I didn’t feel like it actually happened,” says West.
The thought of Pejcinovski was still fresh with West when he hit the ice for the first time that summer. He returned to the same goalie camps that Pejcinovski would’ve been at, returning to a familiar environment that was suddenly missing something. A familiar face and a friendly smile had turned into nothing but memories.
Those goalie camps were some of West’s favourite memories. They’d often be in the same group, spending hours at the rink together. Pejcinovski also caught with his left hand and West remembers the two switching gloves to see who was better at playing with their opposite hand.
“We’d sit next to each other, he’d come over to my house after. We couldn’t do that anymore,” he says.
The following season brought more challenges and change for West. With Anson Thornton leaving a vacant spot between the pipes within the Toronto Marlboros organization, he took advantage.
Yet, hockey was never the same.
“You were playing against him one day, and the next he was just gone,” he says.
West was one of the countless GTHL players that sported the black “RP” sticker on his helmet in the months following Pejcinovski’s passing. Today, West now makes up the second half of a solid goaltending tandem in Barrie. And in a similar sense, he continues to pay tribute to him, this time in a more permanent way.
When he was approached about designing his mask, West admitted he was never the most artistic person. He was never truly picky about what went on his mask and where. However, his only request was that the number “74” needed to be included in the design.
Pejcinovski still comes up every now and then, whether it’s West sparking a conversation or someone asking him about his mask. However nowadays, the heartbreak he feels has long since been replaced by fondness, a fitting representation of what Pejcinovski meant to so many people.
“I always think about him. I’ve talked about him quite a few times to people,” says West. “And I always make sure to tell people that he was the nicest kid I knew.”
On the other side of the ice (and the city itself), Pejcinovski’s teammates aligned themselves with their opponents when he became the topic of discussion. The two teams didn’t agree on much, but Pejcinovski, like so many times when he was alive, was the common ground.
“He was this small, goofy kid, who thought he was 6’2 all the time, even though he was only 5’7.”
That’s how New York Rangers first round pick and current Peterborough Pete Brennan Othmann first described Pejcinovski. After three electric seasons in a Don Mills uniform, Othmann was now on the cusp of his NHL aspirations.
Like many within the minor hockey landscape in Toronto, Othmann and Pejcinovski had first met when they were kids, becoming friends through the numerous hockey tournaments and summer camps they attended. Othmann grew up in Brooklin, Ontario, a stone’s throw away from the Oshawa-Whitby-Pickering area that lay east of Toronto. While the pair enjoyed hockey the most, they also indulged in soccer and swimming, and, as Othmann remembers, Pejcinovski’s exuberant personality resonated through everything they did.
“Roy was very fun. A really happy kid, someone who would always have a smile on his face. He would always joke around and try to piss other guys off in practice,” Othmann laughs. “That was his personality, on and off the ice.”
As it turns out, Pejcinovski was always goofy with a “little kid mindset”. The fact that he needed to grow up a little bit quickly became the punchline of the Don Mills dressing room. He was always there, ready to talk about whatever went on that day. He always wanted to be “in the know” at practice. He always wanted to be part of the conversation.
While Othmann joined the Toronto Marlboros for the first five seasons at the GTHL level, Pejcinovski sided with the Don Mills Flyers. Prior to the two joining forces when they were 14, Pejcinovski took advantage of every opportunity to showcase just how good he was.
“We were playing against him and I was sitting right at the side of the net. I hit a one-timer but he did the splits and absolutely robbed me,” Othmann recalls with a laugh. “He had it all on video and he was giving it to me after that. If he was here, he never would’ve let it go.”
On the day of his passing, Othmann was in a place that he found comfort in. Sitting next to Shane Wright and Payton Robinson, two of his new Don Mills teammates, the three sat and enjoyed the fast-paced action of that year’s OHL Cup.
“We had these kids come up to us, asking if it was true,” Othmann explains, leaning against the headboard of his bed. The walls of his room were blank, except for the sculpture of an animal head with antlers, something he promised to ask his new billet family about. He had just recently moved, after being traded to Peterborough by the Flint Firebirds.
“We were confused. At the time, we had no idea what they were talking about.”
Soon after, the boys were guided into an empty office at the rink. An unfamiliar place for the trio, despite them spending countless hours roaming the numerous hallways and concourses of Scotiabank Pond. What Othmann heard next destroyed him. Silence followed, as they stood frozen in place.
He returned home in silence. He climbed the stairs to his room. He shut the door and drew the blinds, allowing the darkness to consume him as he sat, confused and heartbroken, on the edge of his bed. While others sought counseling and conversation, Othmann longed for the opposite.
“I grieved in my own way,” he says. “When my door is closed and I have my four walls, that’s where the anger and the emotion comes out.”
Othmann knows that the isolation approach might not work with most people. He admitted that it might not even be the healthiest thing to do. But the key is that it works for him. Grieving in his own way, processing his emotions in his own way, has made him stronger. Through hockey, that mentality stayed consistent. He was never one to talk to others about how well or poorly he played. It was always in his own head.
Unconventional, yes, but it works. When tragedy struck, it made his mind stronger.
In the months that came next, Othmann established new routines and practices, focusing on honouring Pejcinovski’s legacy in hockey. Grieving alongside his new Don Mills teammates, he became one of the centrepieces of an elite offensive unit, paying tribute to Pejcinovski before every game he played.
On every single one of his sticks, whether it’s a casual practice or on the world’s biggest stage at the World Junior Championship, “RP74” is written on his stick. In the same place every time.
For Othmann, the stickers weren’t enough. Having Pejcinovski’s initials and number on his stick reminds him to stay loose. Glancing down at his stick, during the ups and downs of the hockey season, helps him keep a level head. It reminds him that he can’t take any moment for granted, simply because the next moment on the ice is never guaranteed. It reminds him that Pejcinovski’s legacy will never truly fade.
“He wishes he could play, his family wishes he could play, I wish he could play,” says Othmann.
And for Pejcinovski, not taking anything for granted is Othmann’s new mantra.
“Regardless of what happens in my career, whether I play 15 years or not, I will always put RP74 on my stick.”
Brandt Clarke is still getting used to the pro lifestyle. The former 8th overall pick got a taste of the NHL ranks, joining the Los Angeles Kings straight out of training camp. He moved in with Jonathan Quick and his family soon after and, during this conversation, was still settling into the guest room.
Between practices, games and team meetings, he hasn’t had much time to make the room his own space.
“I haven’t decorated too much yet and it’ll be a process when I finally get that started,” he laughed, glancing back at the empty cream-coloured walls.
Clarke and Pejcinovski met in a familiar place. The Brick Invitational tournament keeps coming up and for good reason. An Ottawa-native, Clarke was invited to the tournament and was one of the only non-GTA players rostered. He was intimidated, joining a Toronto Pro Hockey team while barely knowing anyone. He had never seen this many talented players in one space.
But then, a friendly face emerged.
“Roy was kind of the icebreaker. He ran up to me and his excitement and happiness was glowing right off the bat,” Clarke explains with a grin. “He’s known for that huge smile he always has, he was always laughing. He wanted me to feel like I was a part of the team and that’s just the personality he exuded. He lived his whole life like that.”
The two soon joined forces on what would end up being a loaded Don Mills Flyers team. And, as Clarke tells it, Pejcinovski’s personality became infectious. Whether he had a bad night in net or a good one, he always wanted to make sure that everyone was happy. He was a positive spirit, and the team knew it.
That infectious positivity led to everyone else wanting to be in a good mood. Which led to the team connecting and growing closer together. Which led to winning, and a lot of it. All because of one person’s infectious attitude. Pejcinovski was the backbone of the team, in every sense of the word.
He also had a serious case of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out).
One night at practice, Shane Wright, Brennan Othmann and Clarke were gathered in one corner, with Pejcinovski standing in the other. The three of them would be consistently trying to make the others laugh, and whenever they would succeed, Pejcinovski would come rushing over asking to hear the story again, just because he wanted to know what was funny.
“That was his personality,” says Clarke, as he takes a sip from his workout bottle. “He always wanted to be around, he always wanted to be in on the fun.”
Clarke found himself at home on the day of Pejcinovski’s passing. He began receiving a slew of strange text messages. People were asking if Pejcinovski was okay, if the news was really true. Confused, he turned to his mom for answers. After a couple of phone calls, the news spread.
“I didn’t really get a ‘hey, guess what’ text. I just heard it from my mom and my immediate thought was ‘that can’t be right’, Clarke recalls. “But then I saw ‘Ajax Tragedy’ on the news and realized it was real. It didn’t feel like I was awake.”
The memories of the night before were still fresh in his mind. Clarke and his Flyers teammates had taken the early series lead over the Marlboros and the team was still rejoicing in victory within the walls of the dressing room. Clarke was widely regarded as being one of the slowest players at getting undressed, and, with goalies more or less being the same way, Pejcinovski typically joined him as one of the last players to leave the room.
Clarke waived goodbye to Pejcinovski before the two parted ways.
He didn’t cry right away. The initial shock of hearing about it had pressed pause on his emotions. Clarke returned to his room and sat in the dark, desperately trying to process what he had just learned. Instead, the moment he thought about it, the tears came, and they didn’t stop. It went on for hours.
“I had never felt anything like that in my life,” he explains.
Joining his teammates for a traumatic practice later that evening, Clarke was unusually silent in the dressing room. Seen as one of the leaders on an intimidating Don Mills team, Clarke sat in the corner of the room with his head in his lap, saying nothing. Conversations were oddly quiet. Hugs were exchanged. Some players were holding others. Tears continued.
Clarke admits that he doesn’t remember much about that night, only that he had never seen his teammates in such an emotional state. Seeing parents and coaches cry made him uncomfortable. The team managed to skate that night. They listened to music. They rejoiced in Pejcinovski’s memory the best they could. They turned his net around to face the boards, so nobody would score on him that night.
Despite the turnover during the following season, the mentality that earned the Don Mills Flyers its illustrious reputation never wavered.
“Everyone was playing for Roy, everyone shared the same mindset,” Clarke explains, even with a few new faces joining the fold. “Everyone wanted to enjoy the season because we all knew it could be taken from us at any second.”
During his time on the west coast at the beginning of the season, Clarke made it a priority to bring some of Pejnovski’s personality with him. Walking into an entirely new dressing room has reminded him of when he was that same scared kid, walking into a hockey tournament knowing nobody.
But after meeting Pejcinovski, Clarke knows that bringing a positive attitude and a willingness to talk to new people will only improve his life away from home. It’s already helped him become friends with Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty, players he once dreamed of suiting up with.
Clarke has since returned to Barrie in order to continue his development. With a sharper hockey sense, both on and off the ice, he’s been on a tear since returning, brandishing the familiar ‘C’ on his jersey. Capturing a gold medal with Team Canada at this year’s World Junior Championships in Halifax once again brought Pejcinovski to the forefront, as Clarke was reunited with two of his Don Mills teammates in Shane Wright and Brennan Othmann.
During the World Juniors, outside of the enamoured feeling of once again competing alongside his minor hockey teammates, he noticed that they each expressed their tribute towards Pejcinovski in different ways. Both Othmann and Wright continued to write the familiar “RP74” moniker on each of their sticks, while Clarke has continued to opt otherwise.
“People know Roy is sentimental to me. I think it’s awesome that people do that, but it’s just not something I’ve done,” Clarke explains. “I feel like some people might ask about it and I don’t want to go through the story all the time. I know how much he means to me and that’s what matters.”
While he may not honour Pejcinovski in a physical sense, Clarke has certainly embraced the mental approach when it comes to paying tribute to him. He’s brought the same mindset and positivity everywhere he goes, the traits that made Pejcinovski who he was. His outlook overall has made him a better hockey player.
Today, when Pejcinovski emerges in conversation, Clarke makes sure that he’s reminded of him in only the best ways.
“He was the best and he wouldn’t want me to think about sadness when I think of him. He would want me to think about how positive he was.”