For two days a year, U Sports is thrown into the spotlight of the Canadian hockey landscape, when the best players the association has to offer a take on the Canadian hopefuls of the World junior Championship.
Being older, and often times stronger; facing younger, faster and more skilled competition, the annual pair of games always value an interesting comparison as to what level U Sports hockey sits at. Most years, the pair of games are split, but there is no consistency as to who wins game one or two.
With last year’s tournament being held on Canada’s west coast, there was a heftier contingent of Canada West athletes than usual, however, the majority of the roster still came from Ontario. It is an intriguing trend in U Sports; the amount of skill in Ontario, as it makes the weekly power rankings unevenly weighted. For example, the UBC Thunderbirds are a strong team in Canada West, but when stacked up against nearly any team in the OUA, they pale in comparison. There were no UBC Thunderbirds named to the 2019 U Sports all-star roster. Despite this, the 2019 roster had a very equal representation of associations. There were five returnees from last year’s team, two fewer holdovers than there were from 2017 to 2018.
The first game offered exactly what could have been expected. It was clear that neither team had played in a competitive game together before. Passes went astray and defensive responsibility flew away, but by the end of the game, things had started to click.
As is always the case with these games, they’re always contested at a very high pace. A scout of the OHL’s Niagra Ice Dogs who was in attendance could be overheard saying” Look at the speed,” something that can easily sum up the theme of the series
Most of the focus was on the Canadian prospects, but the other 20 players on the ice also had something to say, making it hard on the Canadian team to scratch out their 4-3 win in the first game. “There was a lot of resilience to our group. We had a good start, had the lead and we had to fight back three times,” said U Sports head coach Garnidir MacDougal of his team’s performance. The all-stars did not lead the game after opening the scoring, but they did keep it close all the way up to 3-3.
Another interesting thing that happens in the series is how the two teams organize the netminder’s ice time. Each of the four netminders from Team Canada got an opportunity in the game, also playing in net for the university all-stars. After all, the purpose of the two games is to give game speed experience to the young Canadians in preparation for their WJC quest. With the junior goalies in the U Sports crease, they face the calibre of shots they may face from hockey powerhouses such as the USA and Russia later in the month.
For a team that has not played together, the special teams were surprisingly organized. Whether it is similar systems that penetrate through all of U sports or simply smart hockey players, the U sports powerplay offered a tenacious challenge for the teenagers. The powerplay prowess was displayed at it’s finest in the second game; U Sports cycled the puck like they’ve played together for months, all leading up to a blistering wrist shot from Ryerson Ram’s superstar Matt Santos “It’s what I usually do, we have two practices and were able to practice stuff like that,” Santos said following the game. He was also the only Ryerson player on the team, taking the spot from fellow Ram’s first liner Matt Misteli, on that, Santos said that there were no hard feelings between the two, more just congratulations from his linemate.
Following that goal, it wasn’t long until the U Sports team would double their lead, but it was an even shorter amount of time until the game became 2-1. As we said, the hockey between these two teams is always fast-paced. Although the U Sports team featured 100% student-athletes, there were four students in the Canadian red sweaters, including the one who scored the opening goal of game 2. Alex Newhook, the goalscorer and former BCHL’er are currently playing in the NCAA for the Boston College Eagles, under now Hall of Fame head coach Jerry York.
Even though York was not present in Oakville, his influence was felt by both teams. He is a long-time friend of Macdougal, the U Sports coach, has his current connection with Newhook, and is familiar with the six New Brunswick players from BC’s pre-season. Newhook was one of the three NCAA athletes who were cut by Hockey Canada. Jacob Bernard-Docker will be the only college representative to dawn the maple leaf.
Each of the three first period goals came from college hockey players, a true eyeopener for those who do not realize the talent of student-athletes. The goal-fest of a first period was the last hint of offensive excitement that would be offered between the two teams, as the next two periods passed by nonchalantly scoreless.
As is the tradition in the two-game series, 3-on-3 overtime took place followed by a shootout, both of which were one by the U Sports all-stars. For another year, the two teams split the two games, and the U Sports all-stars again proved a formidable test for the youngsters. As to whether this year’s preparation will bear more fruit than a dismal quarter-final exit is yet to be seen, but that will be decided in the Czech Republic, without the help of U Sports.