Tributes pour in for Eli Palfreyman, Ontario junior hockey captain, who died after collapsing during a tournament

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Eli Palfreyman was the kind of hockey player you wanted on your team and didn’t want to play against, says Ayr Centennials vice-president, among those paying tribute to popular captain who died in junior tournament this week .

“Eli was the wonderful captain we’ve been looking forward to,” Shantz said Thursday outside the North Dumfries Community Complex in the southern Ontario community.

“As captain on the ice, nobody took liberties with any of our players or they were going to hear Eli,” Shantz said. “The other players respected him for that. They knew he had their back.”

Last week, Palfreyman, 20, of Cambridge, Ont., was named captain of the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League (GOJHL) team.

He died after collapsing in the locker room Tuesday night during the second intermission of a preseason tournament game against the Boston Jr. Bruins at the complex.

The exact cause of Palfreyman’s death has yet to be revealed.

The mother rushed to the side of the player

Shantz said the team coach was on the ice with another injured player when screams came from the Centennials locker room.

Palfreyman’s mother, who is a nurse and was in the stands, went to the locker room as the team coach began chest compressions.

Shantz said when Palfreyman was taken to hospital by ambulance, they were told he had a weak pulse.

Between 1:30 a.m. and 2 a.m. ET Wednesday, Shantz received the call that Palfreyman had died.

Flowers and hockey sticks, right, were laid outside the North Dumfries Community Complex in Ayr, Ont., Thursday morning by people wanting to honor Centennials captain Eli Palfreyman, left. The 20-year-old died after collapsing in the dressing room during a pre-season tournament. (Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League/Kate Bueckert/CBC)

His passing shook the community of less than 5,000 people, Mayor Sue Foxton said, but it also sparked an outpouring of support.

“All my kids played hockey. I played hockey for Ayr, my husband played. So we know – and it’s a big heartbreak,” Foxton said.

“It touched everyone. And for me, I’m grateful for that. It sends the message that we understand each other. We’re a community. And as the saying goes: if one of us hurts, we hurt. all wrong. And that’s so true here.”

Games postponed

The Ayr Mutual Global Invitational tournament matches – featuring teams from Canada, the United States and Germany – have been postponed.

GOJHL released a statement Thursday and Commissioner Brent Garbutt called Palfreyman’s death an “unexplainable tragedy.”

“While Eli’s relationships and friendships run deep throughout the GOJHL, the league helps provide grief and mental health professionals to support the Centennials organization as well as other teams and their players,” said said Garbutt.

The league has postponed all exhibition games. Garbutt said they were also discussing ways to remember Palfreyman.

Shantz said the team wanted to honor their captain and details of a plan will be released in the coming days.

A hockey stick wrapped in white duct tape says
A hockey stick signed by the KW Siskins hockey team was part of the North Dumfries Leisure Center memorial. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Mourning session held for the team

The team held a session on Wednesday to help players and staff deal with their grief.

Shantz said the players seemed to appreciate having the time to just be together, even though many of them were quiet.

Palfreyman’s parents spoke to their son’s teammates during the session. Her father left first, Shantz said.

“He said the happiest day in Eli’s life was when he was made captain, and he said you can’t take a shift the rest of the year because the spirit of ‘Eli will push you to do your best every shift, and I want to see that,” Shantz said.

“Then the mother spoke and, you know, the tears just flowed everywhere when a grieving mother talks about her son. And instead of going inside, she just talked about us and all that we have She was there, she saw it and she just congratulated us. She said, ‘I know how hard you worked to save Eli.'”

Foxton said township staff were assisting the Palfreyman family and the team as they sought to arrange Eli’s funeral.

The player’s former team pays tribute to him

The Peterborough Petes, who picked Palfreyman in the 2018 OHL Priority Draft against the Cambridge Hawks, said they were “saddened to learn” of his passing.

“The forward has attended several Petes training and development camps since being drafted by the Petes,” the team said in a statement posted on their website. “Eli was also a top football player growing up and was also a baseball enthusiast.”

The National Hockey League tweeted: “We are heartbroken over the loss of Eli Palfreyman, a captain and member of the hockey community who left us far too soon.”

Shantz pointed to a message of support the Centennials received from the Humboldt Broncos. On April 6, 2018, a semi-trailer truck ran through a stop sign and rammed the Saskatchewan team bus, killing 16 people and injuring 13.

“Other players commented on Twitter that they played against him and said he was a player everyone wanted in their team and no one wanted to play against him. It’s the best tribute you can pay to a hockey player,” Shantz said.

A man looks at a memorial of flowers and hockey sticks.
Centennials Vice-Chairman Brian Shantz looks at a memorial, in Palfreyman’s honor, at the North Dumfries Community Complex, where the flags were lowered following the passing of the junior hockey captain. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Foxton said the outpouring makes a big country like Canada feel a little smaller and more connected.

“It warms you inside that we’re never really alone,” Foxton said. “It’s like being cradled by this mass group of Canadians across the country.”

As Shantz stood in front of the community complex and gazed at the hockey sticks and flowers that had been left there, young players passed by.

He said his message about Palfreyman was to remember that you are part of a team.

“It’s not all about you. And if your team is going to win, you have to play with the rest of the players. You have to make the other players on the ice as good as possible and help them be their best” , Shantz said.

“That’s what Eli would tell them, and he would smile telling them, and smile and probably tell a joke or something, you know? It would be Eli.”

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