Written by Jeff Morris
OTTAWA, Ontario – Anyone who has ever lost a parent or loved one will often think back to that last moment together.
For Will Petschenig, the moment he says he will never forget happened on Oct. 27, 2013. His father, Dan, had made the road trip from Manotick down the 401 to watch his son play junior hockey for the Oshawa Generals.
“That was the last game he ever watched me play,” Petschenig recalled. “It was a Sunday night in Oshawa. I remember after the game he gave me a big hug and told me how proud he was of me. That’s the last time I ever hugged my dad. It’s a pretty good memory to have.”
Two days later, Dan Petschnenig suffered a heart attack and passed away. His sudden loss was a shock to all who knew him. He left a trail of saddened and shocked friends from his childhood in Manotick, to his university football days with the Carleton Ravens and his professional days with the Toronto Argonauts, and to the countless people he helped and mentored as a minor hockey and lacrosse coach and volunteer.
Simply put, Dan Petschenig was larger than life. Will wanted to do something to honour his father.
“My father was always about giving back to the community,” Petschenig said.
When Petschenig was traded from the Generals to the Saginaw Spirit in 2015, he switched his jersey number to 65. That’s the number his dad wore with the Argos.
Petschenig, then a 20-year-old defenceman, then came up with an idea and created Will’s Warriors. It was a program that he created to invite a child who had lost a parent to a Spirit home game. For each home game, “Will’s Warrior” and his or her family were invited to the game with free tickets and a VIP meet and greet experience with Petschenig and members of the Spirit.
“I wanted to do something to honour my Dad, and making kids happy was the best way to do that,” Petschenig said.
While in Saginaw, Petschenig launched his foundation called A Heart Like Mine. More than 125 families have gone through the program. One of the biggest things for Petschenig was to make sure that he could help these children and families enjoy quality family time together during the difficult time of grieving their lost loved one.
Since the program’s inception, Petschenig has volunteered 100’s of hours by attending Children’s Grief Centers across the United States. He has volunteered at the Children’s Grief Center of Great Lakes Bay Region in the Saginaw, Michigan area and at Erin’s House in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He has also toured Valerie’s House in South West Florida to see the differences and what each grief center has to offer. He has become a certified children’s grief specialist. This has all been volunteer work.
His goal is to open Canada’s premier children’s grief centre called A Heart Like Mine in the Durham Region.
A documentary has been made on Petschenig’s journey with his charitable work. It was scheduled to begin streaming Oct. 29, the anniversary of the death of his father.
“It shares my story and my plan for what I’m doing here in the Durham Region, the place I now call home,” Petschenig said. “After losing my dad, it’s been tough for me to come home to Ottawa because it brings up a lot of emotions and it just makes me miss him even more. I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by some amazing people in the Durham Region.”
Petschenig is excited about the documentary and how it will help his father’s legacy grow.
“It even made me cry watching the documentary trailer,” he said. “I’m excited to see the full documentary and everything that happens after that to help make a difference in the world in honour of my dad. He always gave back and he always had time to help others and make them the best versions of themselves. That’s what I’m trying to do in honour of him. Hopefully I can keep his legacy going forever.”
Because of his family’s Swiss heritage, Petschenig got an unusual opportunity after graduating from the OHL. He signed with Geneve Servette of the Swiss Hockey League and was able to play as a Swiss national rather than as an import. There is a limit as to how many North American imports teams can have on their roster.
He took the A Heart Like Mine program with him to Geneva.
“It was one of the coolest experiences of my life,” Petschenig said of his three years in Switzerland. “Our team was coached by Chris McSorley – Marty McSorley’s brother – and it was basically a North American team. It was a lot of fun and it was definitely a Canadian atmosphere. We had 10 or 12 North Americans on the team that first year, whether it was being a Swiss-Canadian like myself or an American-Swiss or an import.”
Petschenig said it was an easy transition for him and it was an exciting challenge to play in one of the best leagues in the world outside the NHL.
“There are so many good players there,” Petschenig said. “You see this year in the NHL, Roman Jossi, a Swiss defenceman, was the best defenceman in the world. The league itself is amazing. To be able to live in Switzerland is amazing too. It’s such a beautiful country like Canada.”
Petschenig said that because of his family’s Swiss heritage, fans there gravitated to his project and the story of his father.
“The support I had from all the fans over there was incredible,” he said. “People still send me messages to this day thanking me for everything I did for their club. It was an amazing atmosphere to play in front of those European fans every night.”
One of his biggest thrills in Switzerland came when he was selected to play for Team Canada in the annual Spengler Cup hockey tournament. Petschenig came home with a gold medal as Canada won the tournament.
“I was able to where the Canadian maple leaf on my chest and represent my country, and to have 65 on my back,” Petschenig said. “It’s a pretty cool memory to have – something that will last forever. To be able to represent my country and wear my dad’s number and win the Spengler Cup, one of the oldest tournaments in the history of hockey.”
Petschenig came back to North America last season. He was in the Chicago Blackhawks’ system, but came down with bacterial pneumonia during training camp. He was traded to the Vegas Golden Knights, and after recovering, spent the season with their ECHL affiliate in Fort Wayne, IN. Petschenig played in the final 26 games of the season for the Fort Wayne Komets before the league was shut down due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Through his own journey both on the ice and in the communities he has represented, his father has stayed with him in mind and spirit. He said he has a lot of treasured memories with him, but what he remembers the most is how people loved to be around him.
“He was everything to me,” Petschenig said. “He was my role model and my best friend. I was so fortunate to be able to call him Dad. At the end of the day, he was my Superman. Just the things that he did for my siblings and I and the way he loved us unconditionally, he was certainly a special person.”
Even though Petschenig was playing in Oshawa, his father rarely missed games. Petschenig called his father his biggest supporter.
“I remember my first ever OHL exhibition game,” Petschenig said. “It was in St. Catharines and we were playing the Niagara Ice Dogs. My sister had a hockey game at 10:30 a.m. in Orleans. After her game he drove from Orleans all the way to St. Catharines to make a 5:30 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon, and then he drove all the way home to Ottawa after that. That’s just a short glimpse of how he supported me.
“He spent a lot of time in the vehicle not only with me but with my siblings as well. At one point all four of us were playing hockey during hockey season and lacrosse during lacrosse season.”
The Petschenig family was a fixture in the Nepean Knights lacrosse program as much as they were in the local minor hockey scene. One of the players influenced by Dan Petschenig as a coach and mentor was JP Kealey, who graduated from the Knights program and turned pro with the Buffalo Bandits.
“Dan was and still is one of the most influential coaches I’ve ever had,” Kealey said. “He preached to us at a very young age to play hard, protect yourself, protect your teammates and play the game with integrity. I often found myself in the penalty box at a young age, I loved being physical and that got me in trouble and frustrated me.
“I still remember to this day, Dan pulled me aside one time when I was in tears after being ejected from another game for a hit. He told me ‘I don’t care how many penalties you take, if you play within the rules, or you’re protecting your teammates I can live with the consequences. Never let anyone take away your physicality and change your game’.
“That’s something that stuck with me then and still does now. It’s moments like those that leave a lasting impact on athletes, and with Dan there were many.”
While Dan Petschenig left a lasting impression on the community as a coach and mentor, he was a lifelong friend for many of his football teammates at Carleton. Will has maintained many of those friendships in the seven years since his father’s passing.
“Obviously, some of my dad’s best friends, like Barry Bassingthwaite, Kevin McKerrow, Lorne Watters, John Hurley – they all come to mind,” Petschenig said. “I try and stay in contact with them as much as I can. I sent them an update and wished them a Happy Thanksgiving and it’s good to reconnect with those guys. They all had such an impact on my dad’s life and they have been so supportive of the Petschenig family as well. The football community, like any sports community, is truly special. It’s so amazing to stay in contact with all those people who were once friends of my dad. It’s always great to hear some of those college football stories. They were certainly the life of the party at any parties my dad had.”
As a Raven, Dan Petschenig was known as a prankster. One of his most memorable moments off the field came during a Ravens rookie party in the team’s locker room. He showed up wearing overalls and led a goat on a leash from his family’s farm in Manotick into the party.
But as fun as he was as a teammate, he was even more devoted to the success of the program. He was largely responsible for the creation of the weight room inside the locker room in the 1980s.
He was also remembered as a heart-and-soul teammate. It’s a trait that he instilled in his children, both in sports and in the community.
“One of the most important things my dad ever instilled in me was to be a good teammate,” Petschenig said. “I’m not the most skilled hockey player in the world but I think just being a good person and a good teammate has allowed me to extend my professional career. It’s opened different opportunities for me too. I’m very fortunate for everything my Dad did to help for me to become a better person and I’m fortunate for the way I was raised by him.”
To find out more about Will Petschenig’s project honouring his father, visit aheartlikemine.ca.