TORONTO, ON – Coming off a historic year of Canada West hockey, the westernmost conference of U SPORTS men’s hockey returns for the 2023-24 season on Thursday night, marking the second conference to return to play.
The OUA hit the ice to open its season on Sept. 24, as the Nipissing Lakers defeated the Guelph Gryphons 2-1. Meanwhile, the AUS holds off for another week before hitting full stride.
With historically strong programs and transitional years for others, 49 Sports previews each team in Canada West men’s hockey.
Alberta Golden Bears
The Alberta Golden Bears come into every season with a University Cup title on their minds, and this year is no different. After dropping the U SPORTS Final to the UNB Reds and the Canada West Final to the Calgary Dinos last season, head coach Ian Herbers and the group set their sights on trophies in 2023-23.
This season, however, will be a challenge for the Golden Bears after they lost top veterans Matt Fonteyne, Dawson Davidson, Nolan Volcan, Jared Freadrich, and Ryan Hughes to professional teams.
With those absences, holding onto top scorers Josh Prokop and Jakin Smallwood becomes more critical. The two have proven themselves among the premier players in the Canadian university game and took a substantial step last year, with Prokop bagging 18 goals and 37 points in 28 games. At the same time, Smallwood scored 16 times and finished a point behind his teammate despite playing two fewer games.
Prokop and Smallwood also return to the Golden Bears from NHL training camps, with Prokop spending time with the Arizona Coyotes and Smallwood with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Defenceman Dylan Plouffe brings a veteran presence to the back end and will likely log big minutes alongside Wyatt McLeod, while Joel Sexsmith and Jayden Platz also take on more significant roles.
Mason Ward and Blake Gustafson join the defence lineup as rookies from the WHL but will likely take on more minor roles this season as Alberta still has some top defenceman to turn to. Yet, Gustafson impressed last season with the Saskatoon Blades as a left-handed blueliner who can advance the puck, so that could earn him more playing time.
Overall, it was a balanced roster that paid off for Alberta last season, but the questions lie in how the sophomore players and rookies step up to fill the holes left by a large graduating class. Regardless, the goals for the Golden Bears stay the same: win Canada West and U SPORTS.
Key player: Jakin Smallwood
Coming off one the best-ever seasons by a Canadian university hockey team, the Calgary Dinos will hope to carry the form that got them to a 25-3-0 record into the 2023-24 season.
Realistically, the Dinos could have even done better during the regular season last year, as they missed top defenceman Noah King and head coach Mark Howell to the Lake Placid 2023 FISU World University Games.
While they dropped a surprising U CUP quarterfinal to the host UPEI Panthers, the Dinos still come into the new season with high hopes, dreaming of a second chance at a national championship.
“The team returns the nucleus of the players from the 2022-23 season and has brought in some recruits that will be capable of contributing immediately,” Howell told Canada West. “The key for the team to have success this season will be the steady play at the goaltending position once again, as well as a team-first approach, as the Dinos had key contributors throughout their lineup last season.”
Leaning on returning players such as King, alongside forwards Riley Stotts and Jake Gricius, the Dinos will look very similar to the team of last season, which won with an identity of defence-first yet potent attacking play.
Stotts finished the season as the top scorer with 27 assists and 37 points and will hope to continue as a primary set-up player for the roster, while Gricius looks to repeat the form that saw him score 15 goals and 34 points in 29 games last season.
Other offensive contributors for this season will likely include Connor Gutenberg and Colson Gengenbach. Meanwhile, expect lots of defensive work from Sean Strange, Brendan De Jong, and King.
The goaltending position will also remain a strength for the Dinos, as Carl Tetachuk enters his second season in the crease after posting a .914 save percentage as a rookie starter. With stout defence and top-notch goaltending, Calgary finished with the top defensive record, conceding just 63 times while scoring a conference-high 132 goals. I
The 2022-23 season ended in sheer disappointment for the Calgary Dinos. Still, with a re-invigorated team and a heavy group of holdovers, there is every reason to be positive in the hunt for another Canada West title and another run towards what would be a program-first U SPORTS title.
Key player: Noah King
The MacEwan Griffins enter the 2023-24 U SPORTS season looking to lift themselves out of the depths of Canada West. Last year, they began to show some growth, as well, posting an early season 4-3 win over the Alberta Golden Bears.
Still, it’s an uphill battle for the Griffins and will be this season, coming off a year where they scored a measly 67 goals, the least in Canada West. At the same time, conceding 132 goals did not help their case.
Expect veteran backstop Ashton Abel to be as busy in goal as he was last season, looking to build on his .891 save percentage, while Ethan Strang hopes to repeat his nine-goal campaign.
Having lost leading goalscorer Merritt Oszytko as well as veteran Neithan Salame, the already offensively challenged Griffins face an even tougher task in 2023-24.
“We are a young team that looks to play a physical, fast style,” head coach Zack Dailey told Canada West. “[Our] Keys to success are having good special teams and commitment to team defence.”
Key player: Ethan Strang
The loss of Brett Davis and his scoring. That’s the story for the Manitoba Bisons this season as they look to replace their talismanic forward in 2023-24.
Davis scored 11 goals and 29 points last season while consistently creating scoring opportunities for the Bisons throughout the season. Now, he’s playing professionally in the ECHL.
At the same time, second top-scorer Devon Skoleski is also playing in the ECHL, having scored 11 goals and 27 points last season. That makes two critical pieces missing from Manitoba’s puzzles of the past.
Hayden Ostir will look to take the reigns offensively and build on his 10 goals from last season, and the group also welcomes Junior-A forward Riley Zimmerman among their recruits. However, it’s going to be challenging to match their scoring.
Even with Davis and Skoelski, Manitoba scored 77 goals, the second-worst in the conference last year.
The hope this year for the Bisons lays on the bench and a refreshed vision as Gordon Burnett takes over for Mike Sirant. The 42-year-old bench boss steps into the U SPORTS game with experiences as an assistant coach in the WHL and MJHL, yet has never been a head coach outside of a tournament setting.
It will be a transitionary and learning year for the Bisons, hoping to find some offence from sources yet to be discovered in U SPORTS Canada West.
Key player: Hayden Ostir
The Mount Royal Cougars have been among contenders for much of the last half-decade, yet in many ways, it feels as though their title-winning window has passed.
Riley Sawchuk and Nolan Yaremko, who dazzled against Canada West opposition for the last several seasons, have moved on from the program, making the team’s 2023-24 a page-turning year. As they leave, so do their combined 94 points, with Sawchuk leading last year’s team with 49 and Yaremko not far behind with 45.
This year’s Cougars feature a young and largely inexperienced group, with second-year Connor Bouchard the team’s top returning scorer after scoring 38 points last season. While it will be on him to lift the group, the offensive catalysts are largely unknown heading into this season.
Welcoming a large class of rookies, the Cougars will likely still turn to veteran captain Connor Blake to offer mentorship to the group while goaltenders Shane Farkas and Riley Sims gear up for what could be a busy season in the crease.
Gilling has built a clear defensive identity with the Cougars, and with some luck, that could work from the star this season. Really, it has to, as MRU will need to be stingy in their own end as they hope to replace the points lost 200 feet the other way.
It’s never easy for a program to leave one era of superstars and turn the page to the next, but that is what this year is for the Cougars, and the best they can do is lay the foundations for future success, potentially making a push with a young group this season.
Key player: Connor Bouchard
The Regina Cougars have consistently struggled in Canada West, and this year’s mission will be a tough one. Still, they will want to make the playoffs.
Over the last several seasons, the Cougars have carved themselves a spot as the best low-standing team in the conference, seldom finishing last but providing little in the way of a threat to the top teams.
This year, expect them to land somewhere in that same realm.
Look for Jayden Davis to take another step offensively after scoring eight goals and 18 points last season. At the same time, the Cougars welcome Paycen Bjorklund, who played 11 games with the OUA’s Concordia Stingers in 2021-22.
Having lost their three top scorers, this year will be challenging for the Regina Cougars and head coach Todd Johnson, who enters his 11th season behind the bench.
Key player: Paycen Bjorklundd
The Saskatchewan Huskies enter the 2023-24 season, hoping to return to championship contention. After a couple of down years under head coaches Mike Babcock and then Brandin Cote, the group hasn’t looked as strong as past iterations.
Yet, as Cote enters his second season behind the bench, he does so with a strong recruiting class and one that brings the U of S right back into the edges of championship contention.
The Huskies finished the 2022-23 season with the second-best penalty kill in the conference at 84% and will hope that carries over. Still, much of the focus will be on the new group of recruits headlined by forward Josh Pillar and defenceman Cole Jordan.
Both join from the WHL, with Pillar, the 127th overall pick in the 2021 NHL Draft, coming to the program after scoring seven goals and 17 points with the Saskatoon Blades, while Jordan drew attention as a smooth skating blueliner with the Moose Jaw Warriors. Saskatchewan was also poised to add forward Jace Isley, but he earned a professional contract in the New Jersey Devils organization.
Saskatchewan adds seven forwards and four defencemen for 2023-24.
Still, it’s never rookies that lead teams to championships, meaning much of Saskatchewan’s success will fall on the shoulders of Liam Keeler and Jaxan Kaluski, with the former having scored 19 assists and 25 points and the latter being the highest returning goalscorer with 11.
Meanwhile, goaltending remains consistent, with Roddy Ross back for another season alongside Jordan Kooy. While neither have been outstanding with the Huskies, the defensive structure over the last few seasons has yet to do them any favours. This year that could improve with consistency under Cote.
Despite a challenging preseason with four losses against Alberta and Calgary, the Huskies improved through the beginning of the year and will be an outside shot to compete for the Canada West title this season.
It has been challenging to settle into the U SPORTS level for the Trinity Western Spartans, as the team finished dead last in their first two seasons, first under head coach Barret Kropf, then Ben Walter.
Heading into the 2023 season, much of the focus remains on putting the building blocks in place for future success and playing competitive hockey throughout the season, even if it doesn’t pan out in results.
At the same time, it will be their first season with a second-year head coach, as Walter brings a little consistency to a group that will try to build from conceding a league-high 149 goals last season.
“We are looking forward to building on last season. We saw some amazing growth from some players last year, and I look forward to seeing more players take another step this season,” Walter told Canada West.
“We want to be known as a team that plays fast, works hard every shift, and is difficult to play against.”
Among the players to watch on TWU are Daine Dubois and Tanner Hopps, the only two players on the roster to eclipse 20 points last season. Dubois, who transferred from the NCAA’s Long Island University ahead of 2022-23, ended his first Canada West campaign with 14 goals and 27 points.
In net, TWU landed one of the most intriguing offseason recruits in Austrian goaltender Leon Sommer, who last played in Canada when representing Team Austria at the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship in Alberta. While he has played professionally in the AlpsHL, monitoring how he adjusts to the U SPORTS level as a rookie will be intriguing.
The Spartans have less turnover than they did after their inaugural season, and consistency on the bench is no doubt a positive. However, the group will still face the mountainous challenge of climbing higher than last place in Canada West.
Key player: Tanner Hopps
The UBC Thunderbirds burst onto the national scene as underdogs out of Canada West, qualifying for the U CUP in 2020. Yet since then, the program has struggled to match similar heights. While they made it to the 2022 tournament, 2023 saw the program take a step back as veterans such as Rylan Toth and Austin Vettrel moved on.
However, the 2023-24 season could see the return of the Thunderbirds among Canada West’s elite, albeit having to climb a challenging hill against some of the country’s toughest opposition.
Former Colorado Avalanche NHL draft pick Sasha Mutala will lead the way for the group, looking to build on his 25 assists and 35 points in 28 regular season games last season. The dynamic attack Mutala can drive will undoubtedly help the Thunderbirds keep getting the best from top-scoring defenceman Jake Lee and forward Cyle McNabb, who scored 14 times last season.
On the back end, Lee will continue to play as an orchestrator on the powerplay, while fifth-year blueliner Jonathan Smart will hope to hold down the blueline defensively, having been one of the most consistent defencemen in U SPORTS through the last several seasons.
Expect a similar goaltending split between Kaeden Lane and Cole Schwebius in the crease this season as well, after the two kept identical .906 save percentages through 14 and 10 regular season games, respectively.
After finishing third in the standings last season, UBC could loft themselves back into the conversation with a group largely a year older, having only lost a small graduating class. Meanwhile, they can turn to their coaching staff for veteran leadership, as the previously mentioned Vetterel has joined head coach Sven Butenschon’s bench.
Key player: Jake Lee