TORONTO, ON – There weren’t many old faces as the UBC Thunderbirds took the ice for their first U SPORTS hockey practice of 2022-23.
The group had just one fifth-year player, with program legends gone and graduated, ushering in a new era of Thunderbirds hockey and another tide of consistency that the program has enjoyed since 2016 after cycling through three coaches in as many seasons.
When head coach Sven Butenschon took over the program in 2016, he aimed to make the team a national contender. For the final two years of his initial recruiting class, that’s precisely what the team became, emerging from Canada West’s shadows into the lights of a national championship.
“You could say it’s a new generation this year,” he told 49 Sports. “I think the new generation learned a lot from the veterans, like the Tyler Sandhus, the Matt Revels, Rylan Toths, and Austen Glovers; all those guys set the tone for the future.”
In 2022-23, the team is still in that conversation. Albeit with a different-looking group than Butenschon inherited when he joined the program as an interim head coach following a pro career that saw him play for the Vancouver Canucks and Team Germany at the Olympic Games.
Only Justin Sandhu stepped to centre ice for a photo on the season’s final day when the Thunderbirds celebrated their seniors ahead of a 4-1 win against the Regina Cougars. The 23-year-old grad student played just one year with the Thunderbirds, returning to BC after playing with the NCAA’s Arizona State to carry on the Sandhu legacy at UBC after brother Tyler captained the team in 2021-22.
With such a small senior class, the Thunderbirds navigated their way through the season somewhat blindly, few knowing just how to battle through an entire Canada West campaign after three COVID-impacted seasons.
The Thunderbirds began the season 8-2-6, just above .500 hockey, and looked to have taken a step back from their years of Canada West contention. But consider this, the Calgary Dinos, another young team, went 16-3 through the opening half and still ride a 23-game wins streak that began in November.
In a new roster rotation and fresh faces at nearly every position — UBC has to learn on the job.
“We’re young, and we were trying to figure out how you win in this league, and everyone was just starting to find their roles,” Butenschon said. “When you have a bunch of new guys, everyone wants to impress and score goals, but guys had to figure out that there are so many other ways to help the group and help the team.”
“Once we figured that out, we had some growth as a unit, and it started to feel like a real family in there.”
While the group grew as a cohesive team throughout the campaign, each player had to grow individually.
Second-year forward Chris Douglas took on the captaincy, becoming one of the few U SPORTS men’s hockey captains not to be a fourth or fifth year. At the same time, stalwart goaltender Rylan Toth graduated from the program and left the crease to Kaeden Lane, Cole Schwebius and Dorinn Luding.
There were holes throughout the UBC roster, with layers of unknowns uncovered daily.
“He’s been great, a leader and a natural one, but I think he put a lot of pressure on himself at the start of the season, Butenschon said. “Since Christmas, he’s focused on a self and his own game, and he knows that the best way to lead is just going on the ice and doing what he does best.
As the Thunderbirds approach their opening-round playoff series against Regina, they ride a 12-game win streak, the longest in program history, while also coming off a regular season that saw them reach 42 points, another program record.
Canada West is a competitive U SPORTS conference this season, with Alberta, Calgary, Mount Royal, and Saskatchewan. Still, the Thunderbirds are in the thick of the battle, looking to win their first title under Canadian university hockey’s best beard, Sven Butenshcon.
“It’s a beautiful blend of everything this year, and it’s all coming together at the right time,” he said. “We haven’t won anything yet, so that’s the next step, and I don’t think anyone here is satisfied with anything less.”