Tributes pour in for Eli Palfreyman, Ontario junior hockey captain who died after collapsing at tourney

Eli Palfreyman was the kind of hockey player you wanted on your team and you didn't want to have to play against, says the Ayr Centennials' vice-president. The hockey community, the mayor and others pay tribute to the 20-year-old, who died after collapsing in the change room at a junior tourney in southern Ontario this week.

Player's dad told teammates his son's happiest day was when he became captain, Ayr Centennials exec says

'Lovable, loved everybody,' Eli Palfreyman fondly remembered by Ayr Centennials VP

1 year ago
Duration 5:18
The vice president of the Ayr Centennials, Brian Shantz, spoke with CBC's Kate Bueckert, fondly remembering Eli Palfreyman, who died during a pre-season tournament in North Dumfries Township.

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

"Eli was the wonderful captain that we were looking forward to have," Shantz said Thursday outside the North Dumfries Community Complex in the southern Ontario community. 

"As a captain on the ice, nobody took liberties with any of our players or they were going to hear from Eli," Shantz said. "The other players respected him for that. They knew that 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 Tuesday night in the change room during the second intermission of a pre-season tournament game against the Boston Jr. Bruins at the complex.

The exact cause of Palfreyman's death has not yet been released.

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Mother rushed to player's side

Shantz said the team's trainer had been on the ice with another player who had been hurt when shouts came from the Centennials' dressing room.

Palfreyman's mother, who is a nurse and was in the stands, made her way to the dressing room while the team's trainer started chest compressions.

Shantz said that 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 got the call that Palfreyman had died.

Portrait of young man beside photo of flowers and a hockey stick with the words "our captain number 17."
Flowers and hockey sticks, right, were left in front of the North Dumfries Community Complex in Ayr, Ont., on Thursday morning by people wanting to honour Centennials captain Eli Palfreyman, on the left. The 20-year-old died after collapsing in the change room during a pre-season tournament. (Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League/Kate Bueckert/CBC)

His passing has shaken the community of fewer than 5,000 people, said Mayor Sue Foxton, but it's also led to an outpouring of support.

"All my children played hockey. I played hockey for Ayr, my husband played. So we know — and it's a great sorrow," said Foxton.

"This touched everyone. And for me, I'm grateful for that. It sends the message that we've got each other. We are a community. And as the saying goes: If one of us hurt, all of us hurt. And that's so very true here."

Games postponed

Games at the Ayr Mutual Global Invitational tournament — featuring teams from Canada, the U.S. and Germany — have been postponed.

The GOJHL issued a statement Thursday and commissioner Brent Garbutt called Palfreyman's death "an unexplainable tragedy."

"As Eli's relationships and friendships run deep throughout the GOJHL, the league is assisting with providing grief and mental health professionals to support the Centennials organization as well as other teams and their players," Garbutt said.

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

Shantz said the team wants to honour their captain, and details on a plan will be released in the coming days.

A hockey stick wrapped in white tape says "sticks out for Eli - K-W Siskens."
A hockey stick signed by the K-W Siskins hockey team was part of the memorial at the North Dumfries recreation centre. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Grief session held for team

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

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

Palfreyman's parents spoke to their son's teammates at the session. His father went first, Shantz said.

"He said the happiest day in Eli's life was when he was named captain, and he said you cannot take a shift off the rest of the year because Eli's spirit will be pushing you to do your best every shift, and I want to see it," Shantz said.

"Then the mother spoke and, you know, the tears were just flowing everywhere when a grieving mother speaks about her son. And instead of going inward, she just talked about us and everything that we did. She was there, she saw it and she just praised us. She said, 'I know how hard you worked to save Eli.'"

Foxton said township staff are helping the Palfreyman family and the team as they look to make arrangements for Eli's funeral service.

Player's former team honours him

The Peterborough Petes, who chose Palfreyman in the 2018 OHL Priority Selection draft from the Cambridge Hawks, said they were "saddened to learn" about his death.

"The forward has attended several Petes training camps and development camps since being drafted by the Petes," the team said in a statement on its website. "Eli was also a high-level soccer player growing up and was also a baseball enthusiast."

The National Hockey League tweeted, "We're heartbroken over the loss of Eli Palfreyman, a captain and member of the hockey community who has left us far too soon."

Shantz highlighted a message of support the Centennials received from the Humboldt Broncos. On April 6, 2018, a semi-trailer truck went through a stop sign and crashed into the Saskatchewan team's bus, killing 16 and injuring 13.

"Other players have been commenting on Twitter that played against him and said he's a player that everybody wanted on their team and nobody wanted to play against it. That's the best tribute you can give any hockey player," Shantz said.

A man looks down at a memorial of flowers and hockey sticks.
Centennials vice-president Brian Shantz looks over a memorial, in honour of Palfreyman, at the North Dumfries Community Complex, where flags were lowered following the junior hockey captain's death. (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," said Foxton. "It's like being cradled, by this mass group of Canadians all across the country."

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

He said his message to them about Palfreyman is to remember you're part of a team.

"It's not all about you. And if your team's gonna win, you've got to play with the rest of the players. You've got to make the other players on the ice as good as you can make them and help them be their best," Shantz said. 

"That's what Eli would say to them, and he'd be smiling as he told them, and grinning and probably telling a joke or something, you know? That'd be Eli."


Kate Bueckert


Kate has been covering issues in southern Ontario for more than 15 years. She is currently a CBC News reporter/editor working for CBC Kitchener-Waterloo. Email: