Tuesday Hat-Trick: 3 takeaways from Canada West’s opening weekend

TORONTO, ONT. – Canada West hockey was the only conference not to go through a mid-season COVID-19 pause in 2021-22, yet the post-pandemic season is already intriguing. As the puck dropped on 2022-23, opening weekend showcased the beginning of a new era for several programs, as the old guard moved on in favour of youth. 

With rookie and sophomore performance as standouts, here are three takeaways from the first weekend of U SPORTS Men’s Hockey as teams eye a berth at the U CUP in the spring at UPEI. 

Golden Bears show their class against MRU

Sometimes, the history of a program and the qualities of a recruiting staff are enough to push a team onwards after a large graduating class. If the first week of the Canada West season is any indication, the Alberta Golden Bears are once again conference favourites, simply outclassing the MRU Cougars through two games, home and away. 

On Friday in Calgary, the Golden Bears trampled the Cougars 6-1 and continued their strong start with an energetic 6-2 victory at the historic Clare Drake Arena. However, while the offence delivered 12 goals over two games, the defence turned heads, as Dylan Plouffe Dawson Davidson, among others, shut down MRU’s Nolan Yaremko and Riley Sawchuk, two of the highest scoring offensive players in U SPORTS. 

Offensively, the second and third years stood out, as Josh Prokop had a three-goal, two-assist weekend, while Nolan Volcan also grabbed a pair of goals in the two games. However, the week’s biggest debut was Jakin Smallwood’s, as the former Winnipeg Ice forward scored in each game, launching himself to the top of the Golden Bears lineup. 

An intriguing debut was also the play of Cameron Wiebe, a rare junior B freshman at teh U of A, who delivered two assists on the weekend while playing significant minutes for head coach Ian Herbers. For a program as highly sought-after, it is rare to see a player from the CAPJHL on the roster, let alone a scoresheet, but the demanding, 6-foot-2 Wiebe showed he could thrive at the u SPORTS level. 

In the crease, fourth-year goaltender Nick Schneider made a measly 39 saves over the two games, playing confidently while not seeing much of the puck. 

Having a significant group of young players, the Golden Bears are in an intriguing season. Still, after dominant wins against a conference giant, and with a pair of games against the lowly MacEwan Griffins on the schedule for next week, the Golden Bears may be en route to gold for yet another season. 

A shaky start from Trinity Western in Saskatoon

(TWU Spartans)

The Trinity Western Spartans could have had a worse weekend; that’s at least true. Still, the renewed second-year U SPORTS program couldn’t have stung much worse as they dropped two games against the Saskatchewan Huskies, moving to 0-4 all-time against the Dogs. 

While Friday’s 8-3 loss may have come as expected, the Saturday game, a 6-5 overtime loss,  could very well be the beginning of a worrying trend. 

Under new head coach Ben Walter, the Spartans got a quick start, scoring in the game’s opening minutes and leading 4-1 after the first frame with goals from Michael Spafford, Luke Spadafora, Daine DuBois and Kade McMillen. Yet, the game ended 6-5 in favour of Saskatchewan, with Jaxan Kaluski scoring the winning goal in overtime. 

Saskatchewan veteran and potential Team Canada FISU member Jared Dmytriw scored a hat-trick in the Huskies’ comeback. 

(Saskatchewan Huskies Athletics)

For a fresh-faced TWU team, losing isn’t unexpected, but surrendering a four-goal lead is cause for concern. Not only did they lose valuable points in what is bound to be a tight Canada West playoff battle, but they showed that they are vulnerable at the end of games. 

“It was a tough way to end it, giving up the lead in the third period, but the biggest takeaway from it is that we showed that we can play with teams in this league and we can compete, and we can outplay teams when we play the way we should,” Watler told TWU Athletics. 

“For us, we need to learn how to play with a lead and how to close games out. But that will come. There’s a lot of positivity for me with this group. I’m excited to keep working and see what we can do.”

While the Spartans indeed showed that they could compete with an excellent Saskatchewan team, there is the worry that late-game struggles could become a theme for Walter’s team. Now, however, there is an added focus on getting results against a highly-offensive Mount Royal Cougars program when they open their home schedule in Langley.

UBC rookies Jake Lee and Sasha Mutala shine in close games

(UBC Athletics)

The UBC Thunderbirds have been the darlings of Canada West for two straight seasons, upsetting teams in their runs to the U CUP tournament. While they’ve lost significant players to graduation, the new group appears tantalizing through two games against the Calgary Dinos, a team at a very similar point in their cycle. 

UBC took down the Dinos on Friday night, before Saturday’s game featured the first Canada West shootout since the pandemic and a 4-3 win for Calgary. However, while there were positive performances from two deep rosters, no one stood out as much as former Colorado Avalanche Draft pick Sasha Mutala and ex-Kelowna Rocket Jake Lee. 

Mutala was quick on the puck and looked at home at the U SPORTS level, scoring his first CanWest goal in the Saturday game to add to his two assists on Friday. Meanwhile, Lee’s toe-drag and top-shelf shot opened the scoring for UBC in 2022-23. 

Adjusting to the U SPORTS level often proves a challenge for rookies, who tend to get up to speed in 3-4 games, but it looked to be no problem for Mutala and Lee, as they warranted significant attention from Calgary’s defence. 

The Thunderbirds aren’t the team they’ve been in past seasons, and their chance at making the U CUP could be slim, but it was a solid first weekend as they move on from veterans such as Tyler Sandhu and Matt Revel. 

Player of the week: Jakin Smallwood (Alberta Golden Bears)

Next week’s Games of the Week: Saskatchewan Huskies @ Calgary Dinos (Friday, Saturday)

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