TORONTO, ON – The first month of the U SPORTS men’s hockey season is in the books, with three teams standing undefeated and another three still searching for their first win.
While the weekly “3-2-1” column takes a look at what is happening each week in Canadian university hockey, this week can’t just focus on the student-athletes currently in the league.
Over the weekend, American hockey player and former NHLer Adam Johnson died after he took a skate blade to the neck whle playing for the Nottingham Panthers in an Elite Ice Hockey League game against the Sheffield Steelers in the United Kingdom.
Following the heartbreaking and unfortunate accident, significant online hate has been directed at the other player, who appeared to collide with Johnson, that being former UNB Red, Matt Petgrave.
49 Sports completely condemns the hate directed towards Petgrave after the accident, and stands by the former Red, as well as Johnson’s family, friends, teammates and opponents many of whom have ties to U SPORTS.
At the same time, I would also encourage all hockey players to take to wearing neck guards in games and practices, despite the comfort issues they may present.
With that said, let’s get into the column.
3 – Canada West
UBC Thunderbirds flying high, but toughest test to come
It’s been a memorable start to the season for the UBC Thunderbirds as they wrapped up October with the best record in Canada, with a program-best 10-0-0 start to the Canada West season.
Throughout the first portion of the year, head coach Sven Butenschon has everything clicking in all portions of his roster. Yet, the one caveat to their start is the strength of schedule compared to what they have upcoming in November.
In October, they beat No. 3 Alberta, but that came in the opening weekend against a Golden Bears team that appeared distraught and shaken up without their more experienced players. Since then, UBC has had to string together wins against No. 27 Regina, No. 34 Manitoba, and No. 35 Trinity Western, and although challenging, none of those teams are national championship contenders.
And at this point, that’s what UBC has to be thinking.
In net, Kaeden Lane has been a standout netminder with a .924 save percentage. On the blueline, Jonathan Smart has hit the ground running, continuing his career as one of the smoothest transitional defencemen in the country with three goals and six assists. Meanwhile, Sam Huo, Sasha Mutala and Liam Kindree sit 1-2-3 in the Canada West scoring charts.
Huo has scored 4+ points on two occasions this season, scoring a hat trick and two assists in an 8-1 win over Regina, and two goals and two assists in a 7-2 victory over MacEwan. At the same time, Scott Atkinson has only played six games but has three goals and has only gone pointless in one appearance.
Despite UBC’s 28.3 percent powerplay and 92 percent penalty kill likely not being sustainable throughout the full season, they’ve set themselves up nicely to compete for a Canada West title in 2023-24. However, a big test for the group will come in November, with two game sets against the Calgary Dinos, MRU Cougars and Saskatchewan Huskies, three programs all ranked in the U SPORTS Top 10.
Alberta turning things around
The Alberta Golden Bears have high standards within their program, and it’s been an adjustment year for them so far. However, as October drew to a close, the Golden Bears looked like they were returning to their familiar selves.
While immense roster turnover after last year’s U CUP silver medal run offered challenges, several of the young players have gotten up to speed, while the few remaining veterans have learned to rely on their less experienced teammates.
After dropping their opening two games to red-hot UBC, the Golden Bears have grabbed wins against MRU, MacEwan and Calgary, quickly vaulting them up the national rankings and Canada West standings.
While they had the final weekend of the month off, their last pair of wins against Calgary showed they’ve gotten back on the right track. Daneel Lategan, Adam Hall, Alex Thacker and Jakin Smallwood all posted multi-point nights in the 6-5 overtime win and 5-2 victory, with Lategan and Thackar having two goal one assist performances.
Although they struggled out of the gate, the Golden Bears have returned to one of the best teams at even strength. However, the next step for head coach Ian Herber’s group is to fix the special teams that currently stand at a Canada West worst 74.5 percent on the penalty kill, and fourth worst 14 percent powerplay, only ahead of MacEwan, Regina and Trinity Western.
Kolby Thornton Rookie of the Season so far?
The Manitoba Bisons are one of just three teams in U SPORTS without a win, sitting at 0-7-1 in a club that features Canada West counterparts Trinity Western (0-8-0) and the OUA’s Western Mustangs (0-7-0).
However, rookie netminder Kolby Thornton has been a shining light on a group under new head coach Gordon Burnett. The Aurora University (ACHA) transfer has hit the ground running for the Bisons, stopping 259 shots in eight games, while facing 284 shots.
As well, given the way Manitoba has played, many of those shots are coming from high-scoring areas of the opponent’s offensive zone, and several are on second opportunities his defencemen have failed to clear.
Given the fact the 22-year-old Winnipeg native has had to face over 35 strong shots per game, he might be the most valuable rookie so far this season.
The more significant issue lies ahead, however, and that’s how the winless U SPORTS teams can get themselves a victory. For Manitoba last season, they only needed two games, while TWU didn’t have to wait a single game, beating MacEwan on opening night.
Manitoba’s first games of November have them take on Trinity Western, so one of those streaks has to end.
2 – OUA
Queen’s men’s hockey returns to contention in October
Sitting atop the OUA East as October came to a close, the Queen’s Gaels have defined themselves as one of the top teams in the conference this season. Most recently, they defeated the TMU Bold 7-2 and looked unfazed against one of the stronger teams in the conference. Although they also dropped a 6-2 game to UQTR in the latest weekend of play, the group has started to come together in ways the Gaels haven’t seen since their 2019 Queen’s Cup run.
Led by the offensive trident of Dalton Duhart, Jonathan Yantsis, and Nolan Hutcheson, the Gaels have a composed approach to their opponents, often attacking them early in games before shutting down defensively somewhat early. At the same time, their top six is structured in such a way to deliver the majority of the scoring, allowing the bottom of their lineup to focus on defending for the other portions of the game.
Meanwhile, the speed of the forwards, combined with the skill among their defenders, has helped them immensely this season, with two-way players such as Owen Lalonde and his eight points, in addition to Jacob Paquette, Trevor Longo and rookie Michae Renwick.
Despite not getting their desired results against Brock, a 6-0 loss, and UQTR, head coach Brett Gibson has his team hitting all cylinders early in the season. As such, he earned himself the nod as head coach of the U SPORTS All-Stars that will face Hockey Canada’s World Junior Selection Camp in December.
Rookies goalies standing out in the OUA
While significantly OUA score lines haven’t been rare this season, the emergence of rookie goaltenders as standout contributors is an intriguing trend across the board. It still may be early days, only one month gone in the campaign, but Brock’s Connor Ungar, Ottawa’s Frankie Lapena and Nipissing’s Reece Proulx have all stood out with save percentages well north of .930 through at least three starts.
Ungar, particularly, leads all OUA goaltenders in save percentage with a mark of .943 as Brock’s main man between the pipes, acting as a vital finishing touch to a team with hopes of a Queen’s Cup and U CUP run this season.
Although rookie goalies standing out isn’t an entirely new topic, given TMU’s Kai Edmonds and Concordia’s Jonathan Lemieux finished in the top three in save percentage last season, the dominance of young netminders is more prevalent this season.
Take, for example, a Toronto Varsity Blues team that looked listless in their first of two games against the Lakehead Thunderwolves and the struggles of veteran netminder Jett Alexander in a 6-2 loss. The day after, rookie debutant Jordan Fairlie made 42 saves in his first OUA game.
While the veteran savviness of UQTR’s Alexis Gravel and Carleton’s Mark Grametbauer stand out in their own way, the OUA has consistently shown to be a haven for young goaltenders, and that is proving true in several ways in 2023-24 so far.
1 – AUS
Moncton is getting the best from rookies in six a game-win streak
The Moncton Aigles-Bleus are on a hot streak, and few look like they can stop them. For a program that has struggled to link up consistent results through the last few years, the Aigles-Bleus exited the most recent weekend carrying a six-game win streak, only shadowed by UBC and UNB across U SPORTS.
Led by top scorer and rookie Jeremy Lavoi, the first forward has vaulted Moncton to join the elite of the AUS, painting themselves as an early season contender for U CUP Participation alongside highly touted teams such as UNB and Saint Mary’s.
Lavoi, who joined the Aigles-Bleus after a 58-point season with the QMJHL’s Drummondville Voltigeurs, has quickly settled into playing significant minutes as one of the younger players in the league, earning himself six goals and four assists in the team’s opening 10 games.
Joining him among scoring rookies is Jeremy Michel, who has similarly taken on a more advanced role than many rookies, chipping in with four goals and five assists, highlighted by a two-goal, one assist night against Dalhousie.
Although the forwards have vaulted the group to their high level early in the season, the defensive system has looked organized from the get-go and has helped establish Moncton as the second-best defensive team in the AUS, conceding just 22 goals in 10 games. Led by blueliner Jacob Dion and a lofty .920 save percentage from rookie goaltender Olivier Adam, the defence has been another strong suit.
As is the case with any October takeaways, it’s still extremely early in the season. Still, the early returns are looking suitable for head coach Derick Cote and the Moncton Aigles-Bleus, particularly on the back of their standout rookie players.