Friday, 10 May 2019

Western Expansion

The competition for the Canada West championship in both men's and women's hockey got a little more difficult to win with the announcement yesterday by Canada West that they would expand both men's and women's hockey by two teams each as they welcomed the Trinity Western Spartans and the MacEwan Griffins into Canada West play starting in 2020-21. This will be the first expansion for Canada West since 2012-13 when the Mount Royal Cougars were added into Canada West after MRU had dominated the ACAC for a number of years. With the addition of the two teams, Canada West will now feature ten teams in both the men's and women's competition.

Do what do we know about these two teams that have been invited to the big dance at the national level?

MacEwan joins Canada West from the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference (ACAC) level where they have won the last three conference banners in both men's and women's play. The men's squad had a solid campaign this season with seven players hitting double-digits in goals while ten players had 19 points or more. When the men's team is added to Canada West, a number of these players will have graduated, but there are names that should still be circled on the roster as players to watch.

Garan Magnes just completed his rookie season with the Griffins, finishing third in team scoring with 14 goals and 13 assists. Magnes has 72 WHL games under his belt split between Edmonton and Seattle to go along with another 80 games in the AJHL, and the six-foot winger looks to be one of the guns that MacEwan will rely upon this season and into their first Canada West campaign. He'll get some more exposure to some of the WHL graduates who have joined Canada West schools in 2020-21, but I suspect Magnes will handle the challenge well and continue to perform at a high level.

A second player that one will want to watch is Brett Smythe. Since joining the Griffins out of the AJHL, all Smythe has done is piled up the points. In 49 ACAC games, the right-winger has 27 goals and 27 assists as he's been better than a point-per-game player in his first two seasons with the Griffins. He's a smaller forward at 5'9", but has speed to burn with great hands and a nose for the net. Smythe will be one of those players whose move from ACAC to CanWest shouldn't slow him down.

The Griffins women's team captured their third-straight ACAC women's hockey championship this past season, similar to Mount Royal's successes prior to them joining Canada West after winning two championships in four-straight appearances in the championship final. They were the best defensive team by a large margin in the ACAC this season - surrendering just 29 goals in 24 games - while finishing in second-place with a 17-5-2 record. They beat NAIT in the final in a three-game sweep in the best-of-five series.

On the women's side, Chantal Ricker will be a senior in the Griffins' first season in Canada West women's hockey, and she's already doing great things on the ice. The Calgary-born Ricker led MacEwan in goals (10) and points (18) while tying for the lead in assists, being the only Griffins player to hit double-digits in goals. Four of her ten goals came on the power-play, and she added four more goals in six playoff games in helping MacEwan secure the ACAC championship banner. The former Calgary Fire sniper has hit double-digits in goals in each of the last two seasons, proving she can elevate her game at the collegiate level.

Goaltender Natalie Bender is serving as the backup to Swiss-born Sandy Heim currently, but it seems she was being groomed for the starting role next season. She had an outstanding season this year in posting a 5-1-0 record in her six appearances to go along with a 1.34 GAA and a .938 save percentage, and MacEwan will need her at her best when they join Canada West where the shooters put a little more zip on all their shots. I'll be cheering for her not only because she's a fantastic netminder, but because her Twitter handle is "@bendy_the_tendy". You better believe I'll be using that nickname when MacEwan visits Manitoba.

As good as the Griffins have been, their expansion cousins from British Columbia seem to occupy both sides of the coin when it comes to success. The Trinity Western Spartans men's team captured the BCIHL championship this past season as they played solid hockey all season long. The women's program, however, struggled this season as they finished the campaign with a 7-17-2 record. The good news is that there's time to build for both teams as they prepare to enter Canada West play in 2020-21.

If you're looking to keep an eye on players this season into next season, there may be none other than Dustin Deugau whose name should be at the top of the list. Deugau led the Spartans in assists (21) and scoring (27) this past season as a defenceman, and it's pretty clear the offence runs through him. As a 23 year-old, he has the maturity and poise that the Spartans will need in their transition to Canada West, and I expect him to captain the team in his fifth year if he stays in school. If he does, he will lead the Spartans into Canada West play as one of the better play-making defenders in the conference.

Joining him could be the most diminutive player in Canada West, but don't let his small size fool you. Jarrett Fontaine tied for the team-lead in goals this season with 12 and was second on the team in scoring while being listed at 5'5" in height. The former SJHL player has been a force since getting to TWU, scoring 37 goals and 36 assists in his three seasons this far. Like Deugau, his contributions will be needed in a big way for Trinity Western to keep up with the likes of Alberta and Saksatchewan, but along with Evan Last, Logan Casavant, and Brayden Brown, the Spartans will bring a large part of their current offensive prowess with them to Canada West while still adding more weapons.

The Spartans women's team is coming off two-straight seasons where they won just seven games in each campaign. Only once in the last five seasons have they finished a season at .500 or better, so their inclusion into Canada West play may be a steep learning curve for the first few seasons. That being said, the Spartans have some solid players to build around as they prepare for their first Canada West hockey season coming out of the SCWHL (South Coast Women's Hockey League).

The first player who fans should watch for is forward Katelin Korman. Korman just finished her rookie season with the Spartans where she led the team in goals (10), assists (8), and points (18). A graduate of the Fraser Valley hockey program, the Surrey native has been a solid scorer at the SCWHL level as she had nine goals and ten assists with the Fraser Valley Jets two seasons ago before enrolling with TWU this past year. If there is one concern, she had no points in two playoff games this past season in her rookie campaign, but I wouldn't worry too much about that stat as Korman looks to be a solid pillar around whom TWU can build.

If good teams are built from the goaltender out, it seems TWU has a good foundation in Sienna Cooke. Cooke, who only started playing goaltender at the age of 11, played with the Vancouver Fusion midget program prior to her collegiate career where she put up some solid numbers that led her to a goaltending position with the AUS' Saint Mary's Huskies in 2012-13! Cooke's time with the Huskies only lasted two seasons, but she went 24-13-0 in those two seasons, posting a 1.90 GAA, a .924 save percentage, being named Team MVP and Female Rookie of the Year at Saint Mary's in 2013, and was named as part of the 2013 CIS All-Rookie Team!

So why didn't Cooke's career last the full five years? She was accepted into the RCMP in her home province of British Columbia! If Cooke has enrolled at TWU to complete her degree, her addition stabilizes a goaltending position that saw teammates Stephanie Grant and Sherri Break win one game in 14 appearances last season. Cooke could theoretically finish her career at the U SPORTS level on the Pacific coast after playing her first two seasons on the Atlantic coast.

We'll know more about who will move to Canada West once this upcoming season is done. Perhaps some of these players will want to go elsewhere with all the travel that Canada West teams do - Cooke seems like she'd want less with her RCMP work - and I imagine rosters will change with recruiting efforts by both these squads raised to match the rest of their opponents. I'm am extremely excited to see both MacEwan and Trinity Western joining Canada West, though, and this should build some solid new rivalries with teams across the west!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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