Friday, 15 December 2017

Unapologetic Blog

There's no denying that I am a U SPORTS fan when it comes to hockey. Yes, there are other incredible sports to watch within U SPORTS - football, basketball, field hockey, rugby, and more - but I have had the privilege for the last number of years to watch U SPORTS men's and women's hockey up-close and in-person. It shocks me how this is a segment of the hockey world that has gone unnoticed for so long when such esteemed players like Mike Ridley, Derek Ryan, Stu Grimson, and Jared Aulin have all played hockey at the U SPORTS level. Granted, there aren't the McDavids and Crosbys at the U SPORTS level yet, but U SPORTS is producing some incredible talent, and we witnessed something happen this week that has never happened before when it comes to the talent at the U SPORTS level.

For the first time since the Canadian World Junior hopefuls began squaring off against the U SPORTS all-star squad in 2015, this year was the first to see the U SPORTS all-stars sweep the two-game series against Canada's best junior players. It also marked the first time any U SPORTS team has won more than one game against Hockey Canada since 1988. Some may point to this as an anomaly in the history of the U SPORTS-Hockey Canada annual December showdown, but it might be time to start giving U SPORTS its due credit for attracting some great talent to the university circuit.

While the U SPORTS all-stars did name two goalies to the roster, it was a pair of Hockey Canada hopefuls who pitched a shutout on Wednesday night, backstopping the U SPORTS squad to a 3-0 victory. Because Hockey Canada brought four goaltenders to camp, the U SPORTS team agreed to have two of the Hockey Canada goalies tend the nets for them in both games in order to help Hockey Canada evaluate its players. Colton Point and Carter Hart stopped all 32 shots they faced on Wednesday in blanking Canada with Point stopping 14 shots in his 30 minutes of work while Hart made 18 saves.

While the Canadian offence was silenced by the two netminders, the U SPORTS team saw Luke Philp (Alberta) score on Michael DiPietro 2:44 into the game on a power-play. Michael Clarke (St. Francis-Xavier) and Logan McVeigh (Saskatchewan) added empty-netters late to pace the U SPORTS all-stars to the 3-0 win. Make no mistake, though, as the U SPORTS team skated with the Canadian juniors for the entire game, giving no less that they took from players who are competing for a spot on the Canadian World Junior squad. Some will point to the fact that Canada sat OHL leading scorer Jordan Kyrou, 2017 WHL player of the year Sam Steel, Robert Thomas, Alex Formenton, Kale Clague, Conor Timmins, Victor Mete, Dillon Dube, and Dante Fabbro as a weaker-than-normal Canadian squad, but let's not forget that the U SPORTS all-stars are players who haven't been top picks at the NHL draft nor have been enough of offensive dynamos for NHL teams to come calling.

Whatever the case, a lot of people kind of shrugged off the win on Wednesday due to the fact that the U SPORTS team had two outstanding junior goalies playing for them, only scored a special teams goal, the U SPORTS team being older and more physically mature, and didn't get the full Canadian junior squad's best players. It'll be a different story tomorrow, they said, when the junior squad ices a better team.

Thursday night saw the U SPORTS team prevail a second time with a 4-3 win over the Canadian squad. There were a few chances for both sides, but the two teams made good on what they could muster as the Canadians out shot the U SPORTS team 27-23 at the end of the game. Alberta's Jason Fram scored with 6.5 seconds remaining in the game off a rebound while on the power-play to give the university squad the victory. Golden Bears teammate Cole Sanford had a pair of goals in the win while former Niagara IceDog Stephen Harper, currently playing at Acadia Univeristy, returned to the arena where he played junior and scored the second goal for U SPORTS. Alex Formenton, Robert Thomas, and Kale Clague responded for Canada.

The two netminders from the previous night - Hart and Point - backstopped Canada on Thursday while Harvey Samuel and DiPietro joined the U SPORTS team. Samuel stopped 13 of 15 shots in his 30 minutes of work while DiPietro picked up the win as he stopped 11 of 12 shots. Hart stopped 7 of 9 shots in his half-game while Colton Point took the loss in stopping 16 of 18 shots, including surrendering the late goal to Fram. Both Dube and Fabbro sat again in nursing injuries while Jake Bean, Cale Makar, Michael McLeod, Tyler Steenbergen, Taylor Raddysh, Brett Howden, and Boris Katchouk all took seats for this game as Canada evaluates its talent.

In the end, no one is going to look at this series as a turning point for either team or program, but it should point out that the players who are filling the rosters of the U SPORTS teams across this nation have a ton of talent. Eleven different universities were featured on the U SPORTS team. Comparatively, the talent they showcased in these two games against Canada on this roster includes:
  • A Spengler Cup goalie (Jordon Cooke - Saskatchewan).
  • A defenceman with AHL and ECHL experience (Fram - Alberta).
  • An Atlanta Thrasher draft pick (Kendal McFaull - Saskatchewan).
  • A winger with ECHL experience (Sanford - Alberta).
You can't say that the U SPORTS team simply was better when it comes to their hockey experience. McFaull was a sixth-round pick of the Thrashers whereas the Canadian junior squad has multiple first- and second-round picks on its roster. Instead, the difference is that the players at the U SPORTS level have more experience as most are between 20 and 24 years of age. They're playing against more physically mature players, making it more akin to the ECHL than to junior hockey.

What makes U SPORTS unique is that players who may have filled a role on their junior teams as assigned by the coaching staff may be filling a new role in U SPORTS hockey. Josh Roach and Luke Philp, for example, both played against the Canadian juniors and are first- and second-leading scorers, respectively, in Canada West while Logan McVeigh is fourth-overall in scoring.

Here's where things change: Josh Roach never even played major junior hockey. He suited up for the Humboldt Broncos and the Flin Flon Bombers in the SJHL before enrolling at the University of Saskatchewan. He leads the Canada West Conference in scoring, yet never once led his SJHL teams in scoring. He was a point-per-game player with the Bombers in his final SJHL campaign, but he twice has exceeded that rate of scoring with the Huskies including this season where he's already tied his career-high in points. As we've seen with junior players, often their roles and their physical maturity dictate their effectiveness at that level. Roach has found his game at the U SPORTS level, and the Huskies are reaping the rewards.

The top-ranked Alberta Golden Bears, in terms of having a better-than-junior team, have players with 20 games of AHL experience, 136 games of ECHL experience, and one NHL sixth-round pick on their current roster. No one is saying that they'd compete as an ECHL team, but that kind of experience is why the Golden Bears find themselves at the top of the national rankings year after year.

As further examples, third-ranked Saskatchewan, who is often a favorite for a national championship, currently boasts a lineup with two games of AHL experience, 17 games of ECHL experience, and three NHL draft picks in McFaull, Sam Ruopp (Columbus), and Jordan Fransoo (Ottawa). The second-ranked UNB Varsity Reds' roster boasts 35 games of AHL experience, 48 games of ECHL experience, and three NHL draft picks in Olivier Leblanc (Columbus), Colin Suellentrop (Philadelphia), and Christopher Clapperton (Florida). Again, no one is saying that these three teams could hop into an ECHL season and beat any of those teams, but there is enough talent in U SPORTS hockey that no one should be surprised that they can defeat Canada's best junior players.

I guess what it comes down to for most of these teams is that they aren't marketed as an exciting and entertaining alternative to the overpriced NHL or some not-so-strong junior clubs. The 14-17-2-1 Saskatoon Blades share a market with the 13-2-1 Saskatchewan Huskies. Which team would you rather see when just viewing their records? The Huskies are virtually a lock for the Canada West playoffs while the Blades are battling for, at best, a wild card spot where they'll mostly be bounced in the opening round based on how the WHL is playing out. If you're a fan, why wouldn't you drop in and see the third-best team in the nation who is putting together another incredible season?

The Alberta Golden Bears get decent crowds, but based on how the WHL's Edmonton Oil Kings are doing - brutal, by the way - you'd assume they'd sell out Clare Drake Arena for every game. That's not so, however, as the 7-22-3-1 Oil Kings are still a draw over the top-ranked 15-1-0 Golden Bears. The Golden Bears might be the best hockey in Edmonton for the money, and that includes the Oilers and their tire fire of a season. The Golden Bears, despite being Canada's best university team, average 1043 fans per game. If the Oilers were 15-1-0 on the season, there wouldn't be a seat available at Rogers Place regardless of ticket cost. Cost to see the virtually unbeatable Golden Bears? $16 per ticket. Yeah, you do the math.

I guess what I'm saying is that U SPORTS deserves more credit than what the current mainstream sports media spends on it, and it's up to you, readers, to get out to your local universities and check out the action. This isn't just a call for U SPORTS teams either. NCAA teams can certainly use your support as well, and it's not going to cost you an arm or a leg. The action is incredible, the atmosphere is fun, and the hockey is excellent.

But why don't you find out for yourself? Games resume in January, and the action will certainly be even more heated as the races for conference playoff spots and berths to the national championships are on the line. While the NHL and the AHL are grinding through the winter months of January and February, there will be teams whose seasons will be on the line prior to the NHL's trade deadline, and that's why you should be going to see your local university and collegiate teams. I guarantee that you'll see some incredible hockey for pennies on the dollar when compared to what is spent at NHL arenas.

Support local hockey. It's just as good or better than junior hockey, and it's far less expensive compared to some of the horrid hockey being played in NHL rinks. You're going to find some outstanding hockey hiding in those rinks, so get out there and catch all the action!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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