The fiery passion of many hockey fans instinctively leads them to dismiss any suggestion from outsiders that it is, after all, just a game and not life or death.
There is no possible way for the Fort Frances Lakers to ignore such a premise after they experienced a loss far greater than any they have seen on a scoreboard.
Lakers’ assistant general manager and assistant coach Grant Perreault passed away from cancer Saturday afternoon at the age of 40.
His conquering opponent was one that cared not for the fact the three-time defending SIJHL champs are now in a 3-0 hole in their best-of-seven semi-final series against the Dryden GM Ice Dogs, who captured Game 3 by a 5-1 margin later Saturday at the Ice For Kids Arena here after winning the first two games 6-4 and 7-1 on home ice.
Game 4 was set for here last night (score unavailable at press time), but the events of Saturday proved the local squad’s fight for its hockey life suddenly has become a footnote to a bigger and more important picture.
“I just started on my way to the rink and his mom contacted me with the news,” Lakers’ general manager and head coach Wayne Strachan said about being informed of Perreault’s passing.
“Initially, obviously, I was shocked,” he noted.
“I had spent the better part of the day up at the hospital and knew things were not good, but I had my bag packed to go up and stay with him that night after the game,” Strachan added.
“A million things were going through my mind, most of which was what to do with telling the team, trying to figure out how I was going to hold myself together to lead the team that night, and knowing one of my closest friends had just passed away.”
Strachan turned the problem over in his mind repeatedly before finally deciding he would tell the team 20 minutes prior to warm-up for Game 3.
“Really, I wasn’t sure what to do–my own emotions were all over the place,” he admitted.
“I had already went in for our pre-game meeting and spoke with [the players] knowing it had happened,” he recalled.
“We discussed it after as a group of us [coaches] were together in the office.
“In the end, we felt it best to tell them, what with social media these days, and it was already out around the arena and we didn’t want them to hear it from an outside source,” Strachan reasoned.
Team captain Dylan Kooner, in his third season as a Laker, understood in hindsight that Strachan was painted into a corner.
“We tried to use it as motivation and to play for [Perreault], but he was in our heads the entire game–it was pretty tough,” conceded Kooner, who netted the team’s lone goal Saturday night.
“There was no right way or wrong way to deal with this situation, and it’s probably better to find out before than to have someone text me about it after,” he reasoned.
Strachan and Perreault have been connected hockey-wise since the former was brought on as head coach of the Fort Frances Jr. Sabres in 2007.
“Grant approached me and let me know he would be interested in helping,” Strachan recalled.
“We met a few times and spoke, and I had a feeling he could help with recruitment and he was named director of scouting, which was one of his specialties after getting to know him further.
“So, some 10 years together as the franchise emerged into the Lakers, he would step up his duties to assistant coach after the passing of Bobby Mainville.
“We were in the process of adding an assistant, and had a few guys interested, when Grant came to me and asked to do dual duties,” said Strachan.
“I didn’t see why he couldn’t help,” he noted. “He was in on all the meetings as a staff member, anyway.
“He would eventually become my right-hand man–taking on the role of assistant general manager a short time after that and remained so until he passed away.”
Strachan said Perreault’s ability to connect with the players was a key element to his value to the organization–even in his final few months.
“He was always there to call a player, call an advisor or a team to learn about a player he didn’t want to quit on us and, if he felt up to it, wanted to stay in routine as close to possible as he could,” Strachan noted.
“Even though he wasn’t there with us all the time, we were in touch almost every day.”
Kooner was one of many who saw his coach-player relationship with Perreault morph into something more special.
“When I first came to the team, he was just my coach but that turned into friendship,” he stressed.
“He would text me a lot, no matter whether I played good or bad, and he was never afraid to tell you straight up what he thought–there was no B.S. about what he said.
“This year, especially, I’ve looked at him as a father figure to me,” Kooner added.
“I know he will watch over me the rest of my life and he will be in my heart the rest of my life.”
The peak of Perreault’s coaching accomplishments undoubtedly was in Game 6 of the SIJHL final three years ago.
The Lakers were trailing the Minnesota Iron Rangers 3-2 in the series but left for Hoyt Lakes that day without Strachan, who stayed home to be with his wife as she gave birth that day to their son, Cohen.
“That day was nerve-wracking. I kept telling my wife jokingly to have our child so I could travel with the team jokingly,” Strachan chuckled.
“Grant reassured me all day that he and [assistant coach Jon Cooper] had it all covered, they would take care of business, and the team was in good hands,” he remarked.
“Time for the bus to leave came to light, and I sent a text to everyone wishing them good luck and hoping they understood why I wasn’t on the bus,” Strachan continued.
“I believe our son Cohen was born just before warm-up would have started.
“I was trying to get the game on Fast Hockey, but we were having trouble, plus the excitement of Cohen arriving, family texting, calling, and having to bring my daughter to the hospital kind of passed the time,” he explained.
“I was following on the online scoring and knew we were up, but then it went offline, as well.
“They were tweeting the game results and last I knew, it was going to overtime and they quit tweeting,” Strachan grinned.
“I was pacing, waiting for a call,” he recalled. “I ran home to get some things my wife needed, was driving back to the hospital, and finally Grant called and told me the news we had won.
“I was already pumped–my son was born–but that capped the night off.
“Our relationship started due to hockey, and I brought Grant aboard because we had the same ideas and view about a team and direction I wanted to go,” said Strachan.
“I knew [Perreault and Cooper] both were capable of leading the team and all involved knew the importance of the game.
“He knew the players and how to get them charged up, and I had full confidence they would do the job,” added Strachan, who then smiled and said, “Until his last day, he always teased and reminded me that he turned the series around for us.”
Strachan respected Perreault’s intelligence about the game and about how to best address the needs of the team.
“If you knew Grant, he was like a big kid–full of humour, stubborn, caring, and wanting the best for his family, friends, and players,” he noted.
Strachan said two of Perreault’s philosophies on life stood out among all the rest.
“He would say anything’s possible if you put your mind to it and take things head on, and also to set out with courage to achieve your goals and have respect for people you come across,” noted Strachan.
“Knowing the guy as good as I did, there were times that were hard on him, but he always fought through it and found a way to recover to be a part of our lives longer,” he lauded.
“Even as sick as he was, as tired as he was and sore as he was, he always had other people on his mind and he wanted to help and please them as long as he could.”
A funeral service for Perreault was held earlier today at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church at Couchiching.
Strachan, Cooper, assistant coach Chris Sinclair, trainers Dale Cooper and Dwayne Sinclair, and board of directors member Wayne “Muff” Allan were the pallbearers, with the Lakers’ players serving as honourary pallbearers.
If necessary, Game 5 of the semi-final will go Friday night in Dryden, with Game 6 back here Monday (April 10) at 7:30 p.m.
Should the series go the distance, Game 7 would be held back in Dryden next Wednesday (April 12).
The other semi-final series between the Thunder Bay North Stars and the English River Miners is tied 1-1, with Game 3 set for tonight in Red Lake.