TORONTO, ONT – It was 4-2 for the Alberta Golden Bears in the U CUP final… until it wasn’t. The UNB Reds fell out in the quarter-finals to the TMU Bold.
2021-22 was a peculiar year for U SPORTS hockey, as teams took on odd playoff formats, unbalanced schedules and COVID-cancelled games. And, when the UQTR Patriotes won in overtime at the U CUP, their first title since 2003, it ended a season full of intrigue and upsets.
Even though schedules and divisions are back to near normal in 2022-23, there is a genuine chance that upsets and smaller programs breaking out continue to happen, and parity is seen at a level not matched for several seasons.
Sure, the UNB Reds and Alberta Golden Bears will always be near the top, but with large recruiting classes across the country, another double cohort of graduating players and an unexpected 2021-22 season, the title races will be open and likely more than they have been in the past.
Entering the post-COVID U SPORTS cycle
Many of the top teams over the last several seasons are without the players that have carried a lot of weight, with the likes of Noah Philp moving on from Alberta, Sam Dove-McFalls from UNB and Rylan Toth from a UBC team that made U CUP runs the last two seasons.
With veterans out the door, U SPORTS hockey well and indeed enters its new post-COVID cycle, opening contention up for several teams. A look at the playoff structures and divisions, and you’ll find 10-15 teams who could realistically make a deep playoff run.
Over the last four seasons, 18 teams have competed at the U CUP, while only four have lifted the trophy in the last 10 seasons. Although there tend to be playoff races in each conference, a slim few have dominated the championship titles and national berths. Often, it leaves programs listless and without much title hope midseason.
However, that began to change in 2021-22; just look at the Brock Badgers’ run to the U CUP, taking down top teams like TMU en route to the OUA Final before falling to UQTR in the Queen’s Cup and StFX X-Men at Nationals.
Brock’s emergence, done so without relying on goaltending yet playing to their strengths, is a characteristic U SPORTS teams will use in the upcoming season, likely improving several programs. Especially those welcoming large recruiting classes such as York’s 14 new players and TWU’s 10, where there is truly a chance to reinvent the approach.
Additionally, six programs have new coaches behind the bench, further shaking up the league and potentially disturbing the reigning great programs.
New coaches and improved programs
The upcoming U SPORTS season won’t just see the underdog teams of last year strive for success once again, but the recruiting classes are large and dispersed enough that the competition will be tighter each game.
In the AUS, the Dalhousie Tigers began emerging last season with a younger group; meanwhile, StFX and UNB, two of the top teams, lost many of their stalwart players. It’s also impossible to discount an exciting UPEI team bound for the U CUP as hosts, as well as Acadia and SMU, who could rebound from down years. At the same time, Moncton will be invigorated under a new head coach in Derick Cormier.
However, it’s in the OUA and Canada West where shocking events could unfold.
In the OUA, the UQTR Patriotes will continue to be strong, despite their sizeable graduating class, but from there, the conference is effectively wide open. Toronto could potentially return to the top teams, and Guelph could bounce back from a rough campaign, all while TMU looks to regain their form from last season, even with 10 new faces.
For Canada West, travel is back, the local-weighted schedules are no more, and the two rookie programs at Trinity Western and MacEwan are coming in with new coaches, new faces, and a year of U SPORTS experience under their belts. Expected to compete this season, TWU and MacEwan will push the top teams such as Alberta, Saskatchewan and UBC, which have undergone major overhauls in the offseason.
Is parity good, and will there be enough of it?
There is never going to be a season where every single U SPORTS program competes for the U CUP, that’s just not realistic. However, 2022-23 will likely offer closer games and fiercer competition compared to the last several seasons.
With a likely increase in parity, more schools will have a chance to stay engaged as the season reaches the denouement and climbs back up towards playoffs. Of course, there will still be big margins and teams that don’t compete in playoffs, but overall a greater competitive balance will no doubt help U SPORTS hockey in 2022-23.
The reality is that U SPORTS hockey teams don’t often resonate with student communities as much as football teams do, and U SPORTS football isn’t exactly filled with parity. Yet, if 10-15 teams are realistically in the hunt for a conference title or U CUP as the season nears its end, there could be a slim chance that teams could garner a greater student following.
At the very least, 2022-23 is bound to offer more excitement than past seasons for those already following the league.