TORONTO, ON – The Canada West conference has been the Alberta Golden Bears and everyone else; that’s just how things have tended to go. This year, it’s wide open as parity reigns throughout the top of the conference headlined by Calgary and UBC.
Heading into the season’s final week, the UBC Thunderbirds are riding a 10-game win streak and their most-ever points in a single season. While the Calgary Dinos continue their seemingly unbeatable run of 21 straight games, the conference’s all-time win streak record. They even have a chance to match the program’s wins in a single season record on the final weekend against MacEwan.
This year, the Thunderbirds are flying, and the Dinos roaring — it’s theirs to lose. Still, fortunes can turn quickly with the Golden Bears, Saskatchewan Huskies, and ever-determined MRU Cougars lurking in the shadows.
Canada West could win the U CUP this season. After all, it’s a down year for UNB, and no OUA team has looked unbeatable. For the first time since the turn of the millennium, the Golden Bears are nowhere near favourites in the conference. Of course, that can change, but the green and gold don’t look like their past editions.
For the UBC Thunderbirds and Calgary Dinos, it’s a perfect storm.
Led by head coach Mark Howell, the Dinos are making history in nearly every game they play, smashing through the Canada West record book for the longest win streak while toppling opponents and other records in their stride.
Howell took over the Dinos program in 2009 and has led them to two U CUP tournaments, yet no Canada West titles. This year, he’s emphasized his team’s fitness coming into the season, and they picked up wins right from the start, keeping their shape and discipline throughout a gruelling Canada West campaign.
A credit to the players and staff, they kept the win streak going without top pairing defenceman Noah King and Howell while the two were away at the Lake Placid 2023 FISU World University Games.
Although the win streak was at 19, tied for the record, the Dinos reached a new level at the Crowchild Classic in front of 11,000 fans at the Calgary Saddledome. Three games later, they captured their first regular season title since 1997.
“This is a great achievement for our team and the program,” said Dinos head coach Mark Howell after the team’s 21st straight win, a 5-3 victory over the Manitoba Bisons. “We’ve managed to piece together a few wins, and everyone has bought in, and they just keep delivering.”
“We need to stay focused if we still want to accomplish our ultimate goal of winning a championship.”
Calgary, the undoubted favourites to win the 2022-23 U CUP, haven’t played at the national championship since 2015 when they fell to the Guelph Gryphons in the quarter-finals.
A province over at Canada’s westernmost U SPORTS hockey program, a championship storm is brewing too.
When UBC head coach Sven Butenschon took over the Thunderbirds, he entered a program in disarray. A hockey program with better funding than most, but one that had cycled through coaches before him, with three in as many seasons.
In 2017, the former Vancouver Canucks defenceman became the full-time head coach and the first to lead the program in two straight seasons since 2014.
“It’s a great privilege to take over for these guys,” said Butenschon at the time. “I know it has been kind of a long four years, so [I am] looking forward to building some stability in the program and [trying] to be one of the top teams in Canada.”
He’s done just that.
Since 2019-20, the UBC Thunderbirds have burst onto the scene, qualifying for the 2020 U CUP on the back of veteran players and star goaltender Rylan Toth. Yet, they fell in the Canada West final to Saskatchewan. Last season, albeit shortened, they fell in the final to Alberta before losing to UQTR in the opening round of the U CUP.
With a locker room flush with new faces this season and Toth well gone, the Thunderbirds have kept improving, especially as the calendar flipped to 2023, where UBC has yet to lose a game.
However, the offensive output makes this year’s Thunderbirds different from the past. They’re electric. Yet, there are worries in the defensive end, something new, given Toth’s goaltending stability of past years.
“We know we have enough so we can score, so we just need to focus on taking care of our own end and D zone and once that part of the game is locked down, then the offence will take care of itself,” Butenschon said.
“Going into playoffs, things are going to be way tighter, so we got to get better back there. We got to get comfortable in our own zone, and then with the way things are going with all four lines contributing, we’re going to score goals.”
Both UBC and Calgary have looked unbeatable this season and may just be on a crash course for a Canada West final, both with just two games to play in their regular seasons.
Heading into the final weekend, both teams are simply focused on finishing strong, setting themselves up to take their best shot at winning Canada West’s first non-Golden Bears U CUP since Mike Babcock led the Lethbridge Pronghorns to the pinnacle of U SPORTS in 1993-94.