TORONTO, ON – For the first time in the 2023-24 season, U SPORTS hockey was back in full force this past weekend, with every conference taking on a packed slate of games.
Entering the third season back from the COVID-19 disruption, the first full weekend brought excitement and intriguing shifts, potentially bringing a new light to contenders in each conference as championship windows shift for some of the top programs.
With the first few games in the rearview, 49 Sports looks at some things we’ve learned this season so far — we’re taking a slightly different approach this season, however, focusing on one conference for three takeaways, one for two, and one for just one note, barring any exceptional circumstances.
3 – The OUA
A shifting environment in the OUA East
While it’s not entirely fair to judge a team off two away games, it looks like there might just be a shifting environment in the OUA East, as the UQTR Patriotes dropped their first two games of the season, a hiccup for the two-time defending Queen’s Cup champions.
Despite still leaning on a decent veteran core of goaltender Alexis Gravel and reigning U SPORTS Player of the Year, Simon LaFrance, the Patriotes appeared flat on their opening weekend, struggling to generate offensive opportunities. Meanwhile, Gravel and the defence appeared pedestrian, seldom shutting down scoring chances in losses to the Ottawa Gee-Gees and Carleton Ravens.
The Patriotes lost several players from last season and have one of the largest rookie classes in U SPORTS, with 11 new student-athletes among their ranks. While they have the structure and players to fit into it, head coach Marc-Ettiene Hubert may need time to bring his group up to speed.
On the other side, Ottawa’s Ravens and Gee-Gees appear to be within their competitive window, as they both put out strong efforts in the opening weekend. The Ravens defeated UQTR and fell to Concordia, while the Gee-Gees played just one game, the 5-1 win over UQTR.
For the Gee-Gees, composed and patient play led the themes of the opening weekend, as they stuck to an organized identity that head coach Patrick Grandmaitre has helped them develop with a younger group over the last several seasons.
Ottawa made the OUA Queen’s Cup Final in 2020 but had a large graduating class following that season and the COVID-19 cancelled campaign. The cyclical nature of university hockey has them entering their contending window.
Led by a team effort, Bradley Chenier, Evan Boucher and Anthony Poulin stood out offensively on the opening weekend. At the same time, Grayson Ladd and Peter Stratis continued to develop on Ottawa’s blueline. Meanwhile, Francesco Lapenna looked up to U SPORTS standard with 30 saves on 31 shots.
Queen’s Gaels looking ready to challenge
The Queen’s Gaels appear to be right back in the Queen’s Cup conversation, that is, if one overestimates the conclusions after the opening week of games. While Queen’s stood out in the COVID-adjusted season of 2021-22, they took a step back in the standings last season. Now, head coach Brett Gibson’s group looks to be among the best in the OUA East.
They opened their season with a dominant showing away from home against the Ontario Tech Ridgebacks, putting 37 shots on goal on their way to a 7-2 win, while Aidan Spooner appeared settled, making 38 saves.
In their second game, Queen’s made easy work of a young York Lions group with an 8-2 victory, handing York their first loss as an OUA East team.
Queen’s showcased their ability to move the puck swiftly through the neutral zone and set up offensively at even strength, and when they were set up, they did well to maintain zone control and force several chances before having to regroup.
At the same time, skilled forwards Jonathan Yantsisi, Nolan Hutchison and Holden Katazalay played up to their usual standard and helped the Gaels’ counterattacks from defensive areas.
For Hutcheson, the weekend could not have gotten any better, as the third-year Gananoque, Ontario native, scored four goals and an assist against the Ridgebacks before adding another tally against York for a five-goal, six-assist weekend.
While the Ridgebacks and Lions are more likely to battle for a playoff spot than for the top of the conference, the weekend showed the Queen’s Gaels potential and how they could be a genuine challenger come the end of the season.
TMU, Windsor defensively strong in debuts
For one team coming off a University Cup experience and one with a host-berth secured for this season, the Windsor Lancers and TMU Bold showcased their defensive abilities on the opening weekend, laying the groundwork for what could be a compelling season for both teams.
The two faced off in their opening game, as TMU downed Windsor 3-1, but the matchup brought two of the OUA’s best goaltenders together in reigning Goaltender of the Year Nathan Torchia and last year’s rookie standout Kai Edmonds.
Neither was called upon heavily in the opener, as Torchia made 24 saves on 26 shots, and Edmonds turned away 29 attempts. In effect, the teams have two elite goaltenders behind strong defensive cores.
Windsor’s Holden Wale and Matt McNamara continued their strong play as more experienced players on the blue line, while TMU’s Joe Rupoli and Aaron Hyman helped limit Windsor attacks.
In their second game of the weekend, the Lancers shut out the Toronto Varsity Blues 3-0, while the Bold picked up a 3-1 victory against the Waterloo Warriors.
Despite high-event hockey often being entertaining, expect to see only a little of that with the Bold and Lancers this season, as both will likely continue to depend on defensive stability and enough goals to see our victories.
That said, the old trope of “defence wins championships” has proven true before, and the two OUA West contenders will hope it rings true again.
2 – Canada West comes off their second week
Alberta’s worst start since 1929-30, but they broke through
The Alberta Golden Bears have had a less-than-ideal start to the new season, as they dropped their three opening games, two to the UBC Thunderbirds and an overtime loss to the MRU Cougars. Until Friday, Alberta had not dropped three games to open a season since the 1929-30 season.
Yet, the second week showed growth for the reigning U Sports silver medalists as they picked up their first win against the MRU Cougars. While moving on from the second week with a win and three losses isn’t ideal, things are starting to come together at the U of A.
The Golden Bears lost many of last year’s leading players to the professional ranks or graduation but have stayed steadfast in their style of play. In the first week, however, defensive giveaways and simple mistakes cost them against the Thunderbirds. While the MRU Cougars still had such opportunities, Alberta did a better job breaking out of their zone instead of lifting the puck up for giveaways down the middle of the ice.
Similarly, getting the large contingent of young players their first experience of over 1,100 fans at Clare Drake Arena likely allowed the group to take a step forward in their development.
However, all of that wasn’t enough in the first three games, as a 4-3 overtime loss at home marked the first time in 94 years that the Golden Bears had dropped their first three contests.
Fourth-year defenceman Dylan Plouffe led the way for Alberta in their overtime loss to MRU, taking on the offensive side himself with two assists while keeping a composed presence in Alberta’s defensive end. Meanwhile, fellow young veterans Tyler Hall, Tyler Preziuso, and Adam Hall chipped in with the night’s goals.
In their fourth game win, head coach Ian Herbers’ group avoided matching the record of nearly a century ago, beating the Cougars 5-2 in Calgary, with experience again leading the way with two goals from Adam Hall and four assists from Eric Florchuk.
Overall, the start to the season has been concerning for the Golden Bears. Still, with the level of recruit they were able to add in the offseason and the potential of holiday-break reinforcements, they just have to keep themselves in the conversation. And in Canada West, that shouldn’t be too challenging.
UBC, Calgary, Sask stay undefeated
While Alberta struggles, the rest of Canada West is heating up in a season that looks to make every game hold significance. The UBC Thunderbirds, Calgary Dinos, and Saskatchewan Huskies remain undefeated through four games each.
For Calgary, a pair of wins over the TWU Spartans on the weekend marked what was thought to be a U SPORTS record 27th straight regular-season win dating back to last season. However, no official records of the longest abridged-season regular season win streak exist.
Upon Calgary celebrating the landmark at 27 games, several other records were suggested, with the top broaching 50 straight wins. Among the records tracked unofficially by U SPORTS historian Steve Knowles was a 50-game undefeated streak by the Western Mustangs from Feb. 2, 2002, to Oct. 25, 2003.
The longest unofficial winning streak looked to belong to the Toronto Varsity Blues, who won 35 straight games from Nov. 10, 1972, to Feb. 17, 1974
Records aside, the Dinos look at a similar level as last season, and there is little doubt that the U Cup is their goal in 2023-24. Goaltender Carl Tetachuk has remained solid, boasting a 0.917 save percentage through his two wins, while backup Carl Stankowski was serviceable in his two wins.
Still, the more significant tests are still to come for Calgary in their search of topping the regular season, as they get set to take on cross-town rivals MRU in a pair of games this weekend, looking to build on dual victories against the Spartans and MacEwan Griffins.
Heading east, the Huskies look to have returned to Canada West’s elite this season, with four wins against the Manitoba Bisons and MacEwan. However, like Calgary’s wins against MacEwan and TWU, the victories must be taken with a hint of doubt, as neither opponent will be a contender this season.
That leaves UBC, an intriguing team that might be a fringe contender in the conference if not a podium threat at nationals. Led by head coach Sven Butenschon, the group is entering their second contending phase in his tenure, and the veteran core of Chris Douglas, Liam Kindree, Sasha Mutala, and Jonathan Smart appear to be good enough to contend with any opponent.
Kindree earned Canada West Player of the Week honours, scoring five assists and a goal in two wins over the Regina Cougars.
At the same time, second-year goaltender Kaeden Lane has hit his stride quickly, riding a .947 save percentage in three wins, including two against Alberta — a team that could have taken advantage of his aggressive play style.
Their opening weekend came with dominance over the Golden Bears to the tune of 5-1 and 4-2 wins on home ice before they picked up another pair of victories against the Regina Cougars this past weekend.
Canada West has often had two or three tiers of teams, and the start of the 2023-24 season is no different. However, it is a much more wide-open contest between the big four in the conference while the rest effectively play catchup.
1 – Some quick AUS thoughts
Dalhousie wins a flu game
I wasn’t sure whether I was watching the Dalhousie Tigers or Michael Jordan. Either way, it was a win.
With a flu bug running through the team, the Dalhousie Tigers could not dress a full lineup for their game against the Acadia Axemen. While a short bench should have favoured Acadia, the Tigers came out strong and pulled off a 4-3 shootout win, backed by a pair of goals from rookie Alec Belanger, a former Ottawa Senators prospect.
Dalhousie has an exciting roster this year, and they’ve started well, welcoming back highly skilled players Derek Gentile and Barrett Kirwin. They were one of the teams hardest hit by the mass exodus of over 70 U SPORTS men’s hockey players and have since welcomed several players back, including Gentile, who was a standout as a rookie with 15 goals and 27 points in 18 games, before he left for the ECHL and further European pro leagues.
Competing with the top teams in the AUS, such as the UNB Reds and SMU Huskies, will still prove a challenge, but making the playoffs and maybe winning a game could be in the cards for a much more competitive Tigers team than in past seasons.
- Brady Burns scored twice for the Acadia Axemen this week in the shootout loss for Dalhousie, marking his first goal in the AUS and first under head coach and father Darren Burns.
- The UPEI Panther have 18 new players this season, but their first weekend showed they might be able to contend this season. In their first game with the new group, they outplayed a Moncton Aigles Bleus team to a 4-2 win before losing a hard-fought 1-0 game to the UNB Reds, riding a hot hand of rookie goaltender Joe Ranger. Read more on that here