It’s been another full 365 days of covering U SPORTS men’s hockey in the books, and with it comes its fair share of great moments, memories, and storylines that made this one of the most unique years in recent memory. With too many storylines to fit into just a list of 10, before we get to the real meat around the bone here’s some honourable mentions.
- Arizona Coyotes prospect Patrick Kudla commits to Guelph
- Queen’s and McGill get snowed in, forced to travel via bus on snow covered roads to U Cup in Fredericton
- Moncton fires Serge Bourgeois and start rebuild from square one
- Golden Bears win Canada West, fall short in U Cup quarters for second straight year
- Calgary Dinos docked eight points in Canada West standings for playing ineligible player
- Canada win Bronze at 2017 FISU Games
10. Windsor Lancers 2017 Playoff Run
There’s always one team out of the OUA that takes a mediocre season, and flips it into a fantastic playoff run. In 2016 it was U of T. In 2017 it was the Windsor Lancers. After finishing with a meek 28 points, enough for sixth in the OUA West, the Lancers were on the ropes in the first round against Laurier. After a game one loss, the Lancers rebounded on the back of a marvellous 33 save shutout from Blake Richard to win game two 1-0. Game three saw Laurier with the 2-1 advantage late, but Steve Anthony tied it up for Windsor at 18:32 of the third. From there, Windsor went from the brink of elimination to the 2nd round after an OT winner from Tyson Ness. In round two, they managed to not only eliminate, but sweep the powerhouse Ryerson Rams who were coming off a program record breaking season. Unfortunately for Windsor, they ran out of magic after dropping game three to the York Lions before losing 6-3 to McGill in the OUA U Cup play-in game. But the scars are still fresh for the two programs whose playoff runs were ended prematurely by the Lancers. It wasn’t always pretty, but thanks to terrific goaltending and timely scoring, the Lancers pieced together one of the most entertaining runs by any team in 2017.
9. Western Mustangs Goalie Fiasco
Every week there seemed to be another goalie added to the fold in what’s been an overcrowded Western crease in 2017. Since January 1st 2017, Greg Dodds, Nicholas Legallais, Dan Davies, Liam Herbst, Luc Peressini, Zach Springer, and Brendan McGlynn have played games (preseason and reg. season included) for the Mustangs. That’s seven goalies in a year’s span, which is unheard of at the university level. It all stems from two terribly unfortunate preseason injuries to Peressini and Herbst to start 2017-18, forcing the Mustangs to exhaust every option possible to try and cover their crease. It’s underlined what’s been a very forgettable 2017 for a Western team very foreign to this type of struggle under coach Clarke Singer. The Mustangs went from a U Cup appearance in 2016, to finishing out of the playoff picture in 2017, and are in danger of a similar fate in 2018. A headliner in 2017, expect this storyline to bleed into the early part of 2018 too.
8. RMC Turn OUA Upside Down
Among the biggest upset performances in the last calendar year has been RMC’s remarkable three game sweep of UQTR. The Paladins defeated UQTR for the first time since 2005, not once, not twice, but thrice. They even managed to top UQTR in enemy territory in Trois-Rivières after hitch-hiking their way to the rink following a mechanical failure with the bus. In addition to that, 2017 also yielded a Carr Harris Cup victory over the Queen’s Gaels, and they currently sit tied with Nipissing for the final playoff spot in the OUA East. 2017 also brought Riley Brandt onto the scene at RMC. He’s quickly established himself as one of the most prolific goal-scorers in the entire country, which is a rare occurrence for the Paladins. For a program that has endured more struggles than anyone in the last decade, 2017 has been a year of spoils for the RMC. But they hope 2018 provides them the one thing they yearn for the most right now; an appearance in the OUA playoffs.
7. UBC Pull Off Miracle Run into the Playoffs
The conclusion of the 2016-17 Canada West regular season was by far the most entertaining of all the conferences. With six weeks to go in the season, the Lethbridge Pronghorns were on an ill-timed six game losing skid, but still in a spot to make the playoffs for the first time since 2011-12, looking to fend off UBC. In their two game series, Lethbridge won a couple wild affairs against the T-Birds, forcing UBC to be perfect to close out the season, and needed Lethbridge to falter to sneak into the postseason. UBC went on to sweep Regina while Lethbridge split their series against Alberta. This set up a final weekend where Lethbridge simply needed UBC to lose once, or win at least a game against Saskatchewan to get into the playoffs. Those two days made for some of the best university hockey in 2017. UBC picked up two wins with a save of the year candidate from Derek Dun in a must-win game two against Mount Royal. After winning their final contest, they needed Lethbridge to lose in regulation to Saskatchewan later that night. The Pronghorns gave the Huskies all they had, and a late goal from Jay Merkley made it extremely close. But it wasn’t meant to be, as they fell short 5-4. UBC would find out they made it to the postseason via my Twitter while on the tarmac in Calgary ready to fly home. Although reading this probably brings back nightmares to Lethbridge coach Spiros Anastas, this will forever go down as one of my favourite weekends covering university hockey.
6. UNB Go Back-to-Back at the U Cup
In one of the most dominant seasons by any program in university hockey in recent memory, the UNB Varsity Reds pulled off what was… nearly, a dream season. Had it not been for those meddling X-Men in the AUS Final, it would’ve been the closest thing to a perfect season. But UNB will take their national title run just the same. Hosting the tournament in Fredericton, UNB pieced together an immaculate 25-2-3 record in the regular season. Philippe Maillet finished the best season of any skater in the country with 55 points, asserting his legacy as one of the best players this league has seen, and may not see again in quite some time. After a heartbreaking defeat in the AUS final, the Varsity Reds put it together when it meant most, just like 2016. The V-Reds were flawless in front of a fantastic crowd at the U Cup, cruising into the final before taking down the Saskatchewan Huskies. Continuously proving to be the class of the country, one of the more impressive statements is where some of UNB’s stars landed for 2017-18. Francis Beauvillier, Jordan Murray, Phil Maillet, and Etienne Marcoux all received calls to the AHL this year, and Cam Braes is playing very high level hockey in the NLB (Switzerland).
5. Year of the York Lions
2017 was the best year for the York Lions in over a decade. 2016 was pretty good too, but a first round exit at the hands of the #8 seed U of T Varsity Blues soured their season. The Lions wouldn’t succumb to the same fate in 2017 as they completed another terrific regular season before blowing through Lakehead and Guelph in the playoffs. Although Windsor gave them a fight, they took a game three victory to a berth in the Queen’s Cup against the Queen’s Gaels. After a back and forth game against Queen’s, a late third period marker from Steven Janes was enough for the final statement in a dramatic 4-3 victory, securing the seventh OUA title in program history. The Lions went on to have the closest game at the U Cup, falling short 1-0 to Saskatchewan in overtime of the quarter-finals. But the Lions weren’t done making headlines yet, as head coach Chris Dennis won OUA coach of the year honours for the second straight season, then signed on with the Chicago Wolves of the AHL in the summer to be an assistant. It was an incredible ride for a team that was in the OUA’s basement in 2014-15, but it isn’t over yet. Minus their head coach, many of the pieces that made them successful in 2017 are back to make 2018 produce similar results.
4. StFX Take Second Straight AUS Banner
UNB might’ve been the national champions again, but the StFX X-Men were kings of the AUS for the second year running after a compelling best-of-three series against their arch-rival. Just like the following year, the X-Men swept UNB in the final, highlighted by a wildly entertaining game two which saw the Keating Centre as loud as it could be. The X-Men were one of the youngest teams in the country, yet rattled off a perfect AUS postseason, winning seven straight. Their U Cup run turned out to be an adventure of its own, with StFX being blown out in the semi-final before dropping the bronze game to Acadia. But their immaculate AUS postseason of 2017 goes down as one of the most impressive team accomplishments of the past year.
3. U Cup Bidding Bonanza
It’s been a headliner for the last three months, and has provided more questions than answers. U SPORTS sent us into the break with some encouraging news that they’ll make a decision on the 2019 and 2020 U Cup host(s) on Jan. 19th, 2018. But for now we’re left to speculate who winds up with the hosting duties. At the outset of it all, it appeared Ryerson, UPEI, Carleton/Ottawa, Saskatchewan, Acadia, and Lethbridge were all in the mix. Now it’s reportedly down to two, Acadia and Lethbridge. Over the last few months and weeks in particular, the great debate has been does U SPORTS go back to the same well they’ve had proven success with in the past in the Maritimes, or do they look to grow the product out west? Given the new regime and new moniker, it’s tough to tell which option U SPORTS prefers. We’ll find out in early 2018.
2. Clare Drake Enters the Hockey Hall of Fame
One of the best feel-good stories in hockey, Clare Drake finally got the recognition he’s deserved all these years with a place in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Although he goes in as an Alberta Golden Bear, he’s a representative for all coaches and programs this great level of hockey has offered. Known as ‘the coach’s coach’, anybody that encountered Drake along their travels was a wiser person for it. An institution at the University of Alberta as the head coach of the men’s hockey program for decades, the effect of Drake’s legacy and teachings still resonate with some of the best coaches the university level has produced, including Barry Trotz, Gardiner MacDougall, and Dave King. For a university coaching legend to receive this honour is a huge step for the credibility of university hockey, and could perhaps lay the groundwork for somebody like Tom Watt to receive similar distinction in the near future.
1. U SPORTS All-Stars Sweep Team Canada U20
Nothing did more for the credibility of U SPORTS in 2017 than their two game exhibition series against Team Canada in December. The third straight year they’ve had the event, we found out from the previous two iterations that U SPORTS can hang with the world juniors. But this year they didn’t just hang around, they were better. For some it was an eye opener. For those who know the league, it’s not a surprise at all. In 2017, we still referred to a league that was founded in 1961 as the ‘best kept secret’ in Canada. I think that’s bogus. We say it every year, yet nothing ever changes. The difference is this year, U SPORTS showed it. In what feels like the never ending pursuit for the recognition it deserves, there won’t be a single event or game that changes everything for U SPORTS and suddenly we all start caring. But here’s a great step one. U SPORTS is excellent quality hockey. 21 of the best university hockey players in this country made sure we all know it.
So here’s my little year end rant to thrust us into 2018 and the homestretch of the season. We ended 2017 on a fantastic note showing off the best U SPORTS hockey has to offer to the rest of the country. So what are we going to do about it to make this the first domino to fall in a line that eventually leads to this league taking a legitimate step forward in mainstream media? My greatest fear is nothing happens. Maybe that’s cynical and I haven’t been doing this long enough to tell you what change in this league really feels like, but we’re over a year removed from a rebrand which was supposed to change it all, yet nothing feels different. It’s been the same story for years, the same questions, and the same half answers. For two days in December we all care about U SPORTS hockey. It’s the greatest thing ever, apparently the ‘best kept secret’. Then it gets swept under the rug again until March when we knuckle down for four days at the U Cup. Mind you, that’s a generalization. Not coincidentally, some of the best programs in the country also have some of the best fanbases.
So here’s what I’m trying to get at. What’s going to change in 2018? Anything? Fortunately, we’re granted an opportunity here. An ex-university coach is in the Hockey Hall of Fame, U SPORTS made a great impression against Canada, there’s three ex-university players in the NHL this year, the U Cup is returning to a proven market at UNB, and U SPORTS is about to make a crucial decision in where the U Cup lands for 2019 and 2020. The groundwork and the foundation are there to make something happen for this league in 2018. But the powers that be will ultimately decide whether or not anything comes of it. U SPORTS have a very big responsibility in trying to grow their product which has struggled for decades to be noticed. Now is the chance to make 2018 the year we make some serious inroads.
Happy new year, and here’s to another year of making 10 more unforgettable storylines.