TORONTO, ONT – For the first time since 2019-20, Canada West hockey returns with a full, non-localized schedule. Yet, the 2022-23 season brings many new faces, making it one of the most difficult campaigns to predict in recent history.
The 9-team conference, including the U CUP runner-ups from last season, the Alberta Golden Bears, features three new coaches, taking up the reigns and TWU, Saskatchewan and MacEwan.
With so many new looks around the conference, 49 Sports analyzes each team and how they might fare in the latest installment of U SPORTS Men’s Hockey.
Alberta Golden Bears
The Alberta Golden Bears could not have gotten much closer to the U CUP last season, as they fell to the UQTR Patriotesin triple overtime of the gold medal game. It would be an understatement to say that it was a dramatic end to an era of Golden Bears hockey.
Since stepping off the ice with their U CUP silver medals, the Golden Bears have become a much younger team, losing stalwarts such as Noah Philp and Clayton Kirichenko, with the latter signing an NHL contract with the Edmonton Oilers.
Now, however, GM Stan Marple and head coach Ian Herbers turn their trust over to younger players, including Josh Prokop, Erik Florchuk and Dyllan Plouffe, who settled in well in a veteran-heavy lineup in 2021-22.
At the same time, a new leadership group captained by Matt Fonteyne will hope to bring the veteran qualities to a group looking to bounce back from a disappointing end to the season.
Before the third period in Wolfville, early everything was perfect for the Golden Bears last season, leading the conference in both goals scored (93) and goals conceded (43). However, even though leading scorer Gary Hayden has moved on, many weapons remain and could improve.
Look for Prokop and Florchuk to continue the hot form they found as second-year rookies last season, each scoring 20 points in as many games. At the same time, former Vancouver Giants Plouffe and Tyler Preziuso were both strong and are bound to lead the team’s charge in 2022-23.
There isn’t much of a question in net for Ian Herbers, as Nick Schneider returns to the crease after posting a .921 save percentage in 11 CanWest games last season. Still, with Taz Burman having moved on, the backup role could be up for grabs between veteran Matt Berlin and freshmen Ethan Kruger and Jake Bennett.
With a solid seven-man recruiting class and more maturity from last year’s core players, the Golden Bears are the top program coming into 2022-23 and will have expectations of not only a 57th CanWest banner but a U CUP title as well.
Key Player: Matt Fonteyne
The Manitoba Bisons goals aren’t neccarisly to win a U CUP, moreso just to make the playoffs, after finishing 2021-22 in seventh, with a 7-12-1 record in CanWest play.
The focus will turn to former Dallas Stars NHL Draft pick Brett Davis as he looks to build on his nine-goal, 17-point rookie campaign from last season while also driving a top-line with Colton Veloso and Devon Skoleski. Meanwhile, former Prince George Cougar Jonny Hooker hopes to hit the ground running, potentially adding offensive depth, which lacked last season.
On defence, the transition from Reece Harsch continues for head coach Mike Sirant. Even though the Grand Prarie, M.B. native only spent two seasons with the Bisons, he established himself as one of the best CanWest defencemen before inking an AHL contract with the Abbotsford Canucks. He’s now playing with the Fifa Flyers in the U.K.
Even without Harsch, the Bisons will need to improve defensively this season, after conceding 77 goals for the second worse defensive record in CanWest in 2021-22, despite having a solid netminder in Jeremy Link.
Manitoba will need scoring from all aspects of their roster for a successful season, not just the top line like they did last season. At the same time, the defence must improve for any playoff hopes. The Bisons have a very different goal than Alberta may have, but the impetus remains on improving in 2022-23 and beyond.
Key player: Brett Davis
Mount Royal Cougars
The Mount Royal Cougars have an electric offence and are a case of just needing to get over the playoff hump. Through the regular season, they’re stellar – one of the best teams in the country, but it all falls apart in the post-season, leaving them on the outside of the U CUP tournament.
This year, like last, the attention will turn to Riley Sawchuk and Nolan Yaremko to lead the Cougars’ scoring as the two dynamic and powerful forwards look to replicate their conference-leading seasons from 2021-22. Yaremko led CanWest with 19 goals and 39 points, while Sawchuk scored 38 points in 20 games
While Yaremko’s U SPORTS Player of the Year Award will earn the spotlight of opposing defencemen, the team will need to improve defensively after finishing fourth in the conference with 63 goals conceded. It may be challenging, however, with defenceman Tyson Helgesen graduating from the program as well as last year’s starting goaltender Reily Morris.
The big wild card is in goal, as either UPEI transfer Shane Farkas or second-year Riley Sims will take the starting role in the MRU crease this season. Still, the position remains an unknown, with Farkas never playing for the Panthers in AUS action and Sims with just two CanWest games to his name. If, however, either is an above-average goaltender, the Cougars could challenge the conference’s best.
Led by head coach Bert Gilling, the Cougars get a robust first test as they host the Alberta Golden Bears to open the season on Oct. 1, in an opening night preview of what could very well be the CanWest Championship series.
Key Player: Nolan Yaremko
The UBC Thunderbirds have had a dream past couple of seasons. Yet, it’s mainly been on the back of outstanding and newly graduated goaltender Rylan Toth, who often posted 50 save nights at Thunderbird Arena. Now, head coach Sven Butenschon guides UBC hockey into a new era without Toth and other veterans from their recent U CUP runs.
Outside of Toth, who won Canada West Goaltender of the Year in 2021-22, the Thunderbirds also said goodbye to Matt Revel, Tyler Sandhu, Shaun Dosanjh, and Austin Glover, all players who were prime contributors throughout their UBC careers.
A positive, however, is that the younger face got a U CUP and playoff run experience last season, as veterans showed them what they need to do to succeed in U SPORTS hockey. Second-year and former Red Deer Reel Chris Douglas takes over as captain this season as he looks to build on his 12 goals in 15 games. Meanwhile, Jake Kryski and Scott Atkinson also return as offensive weapons, likely taking significant offensive zone minutes.
On the backend, Jonathan Smart is one of the best blueliners in U SPORTS. He handles tough matchups in a challenging conference while also providing a dynamic offensive presence, scoring five goals and 18 assists, good for second in team scoring last year.
As for recruits, look no further than former Colorado Avalanche NHL Draft pick Sasha Mutala, who joins the Thunderbirds after leading the Tri-City Americans through his junior career. While his 42 points in 49 games with one of the WHL’s lesser teams stand out, he is just one of an eight-person recruiting class featuring seven from the WHL and NCAA Arizona Sun Devils transfer Jordan Sandhu, the brother of Tyler.
The UBC Thunderbirds have a very different-looking team from last season, and questions abound for the group in 2022-23, but with the momentum the program has built under Butenschon, look for UBC to push for a spot at the U CUP for the third straight season.
The Regina Cougars might make the playoffs — they also might not. That statement is about as strong as Regina’s possibilities of winning a CanWest title, let alone a playoff round.
Regina finished 6th last season, just sneaking into the playoffs with a record just above hockey .500 at 10-9-1. Their offensive and defensive ranking placed them in the same sixth spot, scoring and conceding 69 goals.
This season, they come into the year with similar hopes and expectations while also eyeing the potential of a Cinderella run. However, mainstay goaltender Brandon Holtby has moved on, as have their top two scorers in Turner Ripplinger and Conner Chaulk.
Head coach Todd Johnson will look to new recruits this season, but moreso Brendan Riddle, who had six goals and 12 assists last season, now entering his fourth year with the program.
The 2022-23 season will be a challenge for the Cougars; however, they don’t have much to lose, as the expectations are no higher than making the post-season.
Key player: The goaltender situation
Trinity Western Spartans
The first season for the Trinity Western Spartans could not have gone much worse on the ice. A record of 2-18-0, and a last-place finish, as they rode goaltender Talor Joseph nearly every night, forcing him to often make upwards of 50 saves.
This year, rookie head coach Ben Walter takes over behind the bench for Barret Korpf, and the Spartans have a ten-person recruiting class as they hope to make their genuine transition to U SPORTS, with last year’s roster being mainly from their BCIHL tenure.
The Spartans conceded 112 goals last season, the worst in CanWEst, and will have to be far better in their zone in 2022-23, even without Joseph in goal. Meanwhile, senior defenceman Travis Verveda will be called to run both penalty kill and powerplay units.
While it’s a year of change for the Spartans, they get an injection of skill from down south as a trio of NCAA Division 1 players join the Langley, BC group, in forwards Dane Dubois and Tanner Hopps, alongside defenceman Jesse Pomeroy.
Playoffs may be too far for the Spartans this season, but avoiding last place or at least winning more than two games would prove to be a successful campaign under a rookie head coach.
Key player: Jesse Pomeroy
The Calgary Dinos are always an intriguing team, sometimes the bigger brother to MRU in the Crowchild Classic rivalry, but they’ve recently taken up the younger role. Still, head coach Mark Howell continues to lead a consistently strong U SPORTS program, which could conceivably challenge year in and year out.
This season is no different, despite losing defensive stalwarts Ryan Gagnon and James Shearer.
Last year the Dinos finished with a record of 12-7-1 before losing in the CanWest semifinal. This year, there are expectations to improve, with stability in the net from Brodan Salmond returning and the injection of a skilled forward in Jadon Joseph.
Additionally, defenceman Noah King is entering his second season and proved as a rookie that he could be among the best in U SPORTS on the blueline. He compiled three goals and seven assists while playing significant minutes and earning a nod on the CanWest All-Rookie team.
For Salmond in goal, the target will be to continue what he has done consistently throughout his U SPORTS career while also looking to move his save percentage above .900 for the first time since joining the Dinos.
Meanwhile, the addition of Joseph as a transfer from the TWU Spartans offers a veteran presence to the group and a forward who is difficult to play against. Aside from his consistency, there’s potential for a breakout year from second-year forward Arjun Atwal, who made his presence known in the conference with 11 points and strong skating skills.
Howell wil leave midseason to serve as the General Manager for Team Canada at the FISU Lake Placid 2023 Winter Games, but the group he has assembled for the Dinos should get out to a strong start and cruise towards a playoff appearance, potentially even a run.
Key Player: Noah King
Last season, just like the Toronto Maple Leafs did from 2017-2019, the Saskatchewan Huskies lost in the first round of th playoffs with Mike Babcock as their head coach. With Babcock no longer in the role this year, they’ll hope to win a playoff round, something that still eludes the Maple Leafs.
As Brandin Cote steps into the head coaching role, the Huskies approach a season with a powerful roster, headlined by former Washington Capitals and Hershey Bears defenceman Connor Hobbs, who scored 22 points last season a controlled play in the defensive zone.
Joining him as critical players are goaltender Roddy Ross, back for his second season, and Jaxan Kaluski.
Ross posted two shutouts as a rookie netminder, and although his save percentage was below the .900 line, he came up with big saves in crucial moments, which allowed the Huskies to drive up the offence.
For Kaluski, the focus will be to maintain their scoring prowess after leading the Huskies with a team-high 13 goals. While his lofty totals carry the attacking weight of the team, also look for power forward Jared Dmytriw to contribute after proving to be one of the most valuable players in U SPORTS last season.
Things are never easy under a new head coach, and Brandin Cote is bound to face challenges this season. Yet, the program and roster that the Huskies have will offer Cote every opportunity to succeed as a rookie bench boss, potentially paving the way toward a CanWest Championship.
Key Player: Jaxan Kaluski
Last year, the MacEwan Griffins were compared to their expansion brothers, the TWU Spartans. This year, though, they want to be in the playoff conversation, potentially leaving the Spartans in their wake.
Amid another coaching change, former assistant Zack Dailey is in as head coach as Mike Ringrose spends the season on parental leave. Dailey, who becomes the only current Black head coach in U SPORTS, played with the Alberta Golden Bears and won two U CUPS in his U SPORTS career.
For the Griffins, improving on their 3-17-0 record and 97 goals against takes priority, and they’ll look to an impressive group of recruits to make that difference. Goaltender Ashton Able comes to Edmonton after playing with Boston University in the NCAA and will likely be the starter; meanwhile, the Medicine Hat Tigers duo of Carter Chorney and Daniel Baker hope to add an extra step to MacEwan’s depth.
Many eyes, though, will be on forwards Kole Gable and Zach Webb after the two drove scoring in the program’s U SPORTS debut season. Webb broke out last season in a late game against the Alberta Golden Bears, scoring two of his four goals and showing he could compete with one of the most competent U SPORTS defensive groups.
With many top snipers leaving the program, the duo will be relied upon to continue their set-up play and add goals to their game in greater fashion than last season.
It’s a realistic goal for MacEwan to qualify for the playoffs in 2022-23, and Zack Dailey will hope that some of the new faces and his fresh ideas can significantly improve the Griffins in their second entire U SPORTS season.
Key Player: Zach Webb
Regular season predictions:
- Alberta Golden Bears
- MRU Cougars
- UBC Thunderbirds
- Saskatchewan Huskies
- Calgary Dinos
- Manitoba Bisons
- MacEwan Griffins
- Regina Cougars
- TWU Spartans