Halifax, NS – For most of the last ten years of the University Cup, the UNB Reds have dominated, but they haven’t been alone in the upper echelon of Canadian university hockey.
Case in point: the Alberta Golden Bears.
So UNB has won four national championships in the past decade? Alberta has taken three: 2014, 2015 and 2018. The Golden Bears have appeared in the U CUP final the last two times the tournament has finished, beating the StFX X-Men in 2018 and losing to UNB in 2019. In 2020, they didn’t make nationals.
They certainly aren’t. In fact, Alberta is a new team of sorts, with a heavy makeup of first and second-year players. 12 players on the roster are rookies, along with 10 sophomores.
Captain Clayton Kirichenko described the team’s start to the season as slow, but a 7-3 record in their first 10 games is a start most U SPORTS teams drool over, despite it putting them behind the UBC Thunderbirds at points.
“They were all really receptive. Everyone’s been leaders in their rooms,” Kirichenko said of captaining the youth at Alberta this season, noting a number of Golden Bears have captained in their junior years. “They were really easy to work with. Our team’s always gone by group dynamics, not just one captain.”
No matter what the approach has been, it has worked. Alberta has won 14 of its last 15 games, including an undefeated four-game playoff run. They outscored opponents 23-5 in those games, burying at least six goals in three of those matchups. Suffice to say, the winners of 16 of the last 20 CanWest titles know how to fill the net. Of the teams at the 2022 U CUP, Alberta’s 4.65 goals-per-game average is unmatched by any other team in the tournament.
It’s been balanced scoring too. In the regular season, the highest-scoring Golden Bears were rookies Gary Haden and Josh Prokop, just 10th and 11th in conference scoring. But come playoff time, the likes of Noah Philip (10 points), Matt Fonteyne (nine) and Luc Smith (seven) broke out for massive performances.
Goaltender Taz Burman, after finishing the regular season as the only CanWest goalie with a goals-against-average below two (1.95), kept in the flow during playoffs with a 0.50 GAA.
The numbers look great, but their passion is what coach Ian Herbers loves the most about his team. It reminds him of the squads he’s coached to U Cup wins at Alberta in 2014 and 2015.
“It’s been a joy coming to the rink every day. In those years, I loved going as well,” he said. Herbers left Alberta after the 2015 title, rejoining in 2018 after the team took another national championship.
“It’s fun being on the ice with those guys with how hard they work and how much fun they have. The things we’ve been able to accomplish this year, it’s been a big learning curve there.”
Alberta looks to continue that fun in a fun environment, taking on the host Acadia Axemen in the primetime game Thursday. They have been ranked first in the country late this season and, thanks to that, enter the tournament as the number one seed.
If they get by Acadia, they take the winner of the early Thursday matchup between the Brock Badgers and StFX X-Men. With their recent history, the pressure will be on Alberta. Anything less than a championship is below expectation.
Photo: Nina Barroso/Alberta Golden Bears and Pandas