VANCOUVER, BC – Just like old times, eh? On March 12, 2020, the UBC Thunderbirds were preparing for a matchup with the AUS powerhouse UNB REDS in the U SPORTS quarterfinal in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Before they could lace up their skates with the REDS at the Scotiabank Centre, COVID-19 took grasp of the world, as all social activity shuttered for months.
On Friday, 533 days later, the T-Birds finally hit the ice again, opening their pre-season Captain’s Cup Tournament by welcoming the BCIHL’s Simon Fraser University to Thunderbird Arena.
With 16 new faces, the Vancouver-based school trounced their Burnaby rivals 8-2, sending the SFU side home, defeated and discouraged.
While SFU had played a game days earlier against the newly-founded Okanagan Lakers, the T-Birds played for the first time since losing the 2019 Canada West final to the University of Saskatchewan.
From the moment the puck dropped, there was an extra jump in each player’s skating, and both sides played the opening frame at a high-tempo, regular-season pace as they battled their way in Captains Cup round-robin play.
The Captains Cup returns in 2021 after a two-year hiatus and has grown from just three teams to include U SPORTS members UBC and Trinity Western, while also welcoming Vancouver Island University, the University of Victoria and Simon Fraser.
After a successful 2019 season and the largest group of rookies ever, the T-Birds set out to defend their title in the 11 game tournament, no longer as the only U SPORTS team in the game, having to face a newly-launched TWU Spartans U SPORTS program.
Simon Fraser opened the scoring through Jacob Lacasse with five minutes remaining in the first period. Yet, the hustling UBC top line of Jake Krksyi, Tyler Sandhu and Austin Glover stormed back within 30 seconds to enter the first break at 1-1.
“That’s our top line, and they got us going early,” said Butenschon, who is heading into his sixth season. “I liked that we were able to play four lines with relentless pressure, we’ve got a very good skating group, we play with a lot of pace and tempo, and that is going to be our foundation this year.”
By night’s end, the ferocious top-line scored a combined three goals and eight points, as the T-Birds brought pace and ferocity to their first game in nearly two years. However, it was more than just a top-line making their mark in the first game back for the T-Birds, but a new style of play, grinding teams down to capitalize late.
“By the third period, if you have four lines that can do that, you wear them [the opponent] down, and you can capitalize in the third when teams get tired, said Butenschon of his team’s six goals past the midway point of the second. “They can’t handle that pressure for the entire 60 minutes.”
While the veterans led the way for the T-Birds, several true freshman and second-year rookies also stepped up. Although his only mark on the scoresheet was a holding call, former Lethbridge Hurricanes forward Liam Kindree made his presence known all night, bringing vigour into every board battle and throwing checks seldom seen in the regular season.
Carson Miller, another true freshman, proved that he will be a contributor at the U SPORTS level, scoring three points and walking through the dejected SFU defenders to score the last goal of the night. At the same time, OHL recruit Jack Wismer did not look out of place in a fast-paced T-Birds lineup.
Although Friday’s tilt held Captain’s Cup significance, for UBC Head Coach Sven Butenschon, it was all about building a mindset around a new team and a hockey program taking on a new challenge after 18 months of difficulties.
“Just habits, just continue to work on habits. It doesn’t matter who your opponent is, whether it’s Saskatchewan, Alberta, SFU, it doesn’t matter,” said the UBC bench boss. “It’s something about you and what you do when you step on the ice and how you handle all kinds of situations.”