There is not a sports publication in the world that in the early parts of each of new season does not publish the proverbial “what’s wrong with (enter underachieving team here) article”. Many of us scoff when we see the headline, thinking of it as the low hanging fruit of sports journalism, but for at least one team every year it is the obvious question. So, whether you think it’s predictable or worthwhile here comes the Canadian University Sports Network’s 2017-2018 what’s wrong with… article!
Before diving deep into the analysis of this year’s team on the hot seat I want to emphasize one important notion – this being what the basis articles of this genre are generally built upon. Nine times out ten the subject is a team who has had so much past success they have created an expectation amongst their followers that it will be perpetual and annual. Therefore, when the team struggles early it is ultimately, shocking, and panic tends to set in for the fan base. In a sense, and from this writer’s perspective, the article and the ensuing fandom panic can been viewed as a sign of respect to a program/team for having been so good that those around cannot expect or handle anything else. That being said I am sure the topic team does not feel that way! My preamble has gone on long enough….
Without further delay this year’s what’s wrong team is (drum roll please…) the Mount Royal University Cougars (‘MRU’).
In the three previous seasons Mount Royal has finished 3rd, 3rd and 4th respectively in Canada West, arguably the deepest conference in the country and has won a playoff series in two of those three years. The 2017-2018 season has begun with one win (in a shootout), 2 losses and a shootout loss (1-2-1). On its face one win, two losses and a shootout loss is not catastrophic (note: two teams in Canada West have worse records), but it’s who they lost to and the manner in which they lost that makes the start unexpected and possibly foreshadowing things to come. The first weekend of conference play saw the Cougars drop two straight to the defending Canada West Champion University of Alberta Golden Bears. Many teams will get swept by the Bears this year (Manitoba did last weekend), but in un-MRU fashion both games were blowouts. Being on the wrong side of a blowout is something rarely seen by MRU in the recent past let alone in back to back games. This past weekend had them playing at home and playing an opponent most expected them to sweep. They split the weekend series (both games going to a shootout) against the struggling, albeit improved University of Regina Cougars (Regina’s Friday night victory was their first win since November, 2016).
Before analyzing any further I must mention that Bert Gilling, head coach of the Mount Royal Cougars, is a two time Canada West Coach of the year. He has built this program into what it is today. In its short history and his tenure, he has had this team ranked in the top ten on multiple occasions and hosted playoff series. I must also add that his Cougars swept a team I coached in best of three playoff series and is someone I consider an excellent coach and friend.
There are a number of potential explanations for why teams struggle. It’s never a one size fits all explanation and is rarely just one thing. For MRU there are number of reasons directly connected to their early struggles. In speaking with Coach Gilling for this article he made it clear that he and the team are making no excuses and they are what the results show. I appreciate that and all coaches tend to live by that axiom (maybe not me at RMC!), but there are factors that can help us dissect and understand why they have struggled to date.
It’s not an earth-shattering hypothesis to say that success in university sports starts and ends with the players. It’s not strictly just about players playing better, there are a number of factors that influence the players you are recruiting, and when and how they perform. The first of these factors is ratio of talent that graduates (or leaves) in any given year versus the talent coming in for the next. In my previous article I wrote about the pressures facing University of New Brunswick attempt to three-peat. One of the key discussion points was how the graduation of generational players would affect them and how difficult they can be to replace. If you are UNB, Alberta and Saskatchewan in the west (who we will discuss later) finding the next generational players seems to come a bit easier than the U SPORTS rank and file. This is attributable to their locations being fertile recruiting grounds with players who seem to thirst to come home and play after years away. Secondly and most importantly, these programs have a history and culture of excellence that has the best players clamouring to be a part of. For a program like MRU who is still trying to cement their culture and build a history when they are fortunate to recruit/develop an all league level player and then they graduate it often takes a (long) time to replace them or to cultivate enough quality depth to cover off their lost contributions.
One season ago the Cougars graduated Tyler Fiddler (who I thought in 2015-2016 was the most valuable player in Canada West, and a player who at UBC we had no answer for). In his final season he had 35 points, played in every situation, was physically a menace, and was one of their key leaders. Any one of those traits alone is tough enough to replace let alone finding someone who possesses all of them. This past spring saw Cam Maclise graduate, he was a transfer who came to MRU with a chip on his shoulder and much to prove. He gave them a 1-2 punch at centre with Fiddler that few teams in the country could match. He is big, strong; plays a great two hundred foot game and was a leader and a great student. Just to further emphasize the impact of his graduation this season, this summer he signed a contract in the American Hockey League (one of very few in the CIS to do so). Add the departed clutch scoring and leadership of Matthew Brown and Cody Cartier as well as Mackenzie Johnston (transferred to Saskatchewan) and Jordan McNaughton, two pillars on defence. When over two years you lose that kind of quality it’s almost an impossible task to replace it with one or two recruiting classes and a bunch of rookies playing significant minutes. It takes time, development and strong dose of luck. Even if the coach feels as if you have brought in equal talent to what was lost, not every freshman can impact a team immediately. They often two to three years to be impact players.
Most teams in U SPORTS have to rebuild; they do not reload. There are only a handful of teams that can say their goal is a national championship every year. For the rest of the country, the game is cyclical, a great generation departs and it takes time (usually an unpredictable amount) for the next one to develop. It is clear that this start for MRU illustrates that they are entering a rebuilding phase and starting a new cycle.
Recruiting is the life-blood of all university sports programs and it is tough to do well no matter where and what school it is, but when you are in Canada West Hockey (and not Alberta or Saskatchewan) you are fighting an even steeper uphill battle. The best Saskatchewan-born overage major junior players rarely leave the province for post secondary and mostly end up at U of S (just ask Todd Johnson at Regina). The best Alberta-born player’s first choice is most often the University of Alberta and if not then University of Calgary. These programs have far longer and greater histories than Mount Royal. Right away you are at best third in the pecking order fighting with the University of Lethbridge for the best players in your province. To get Western Hockey League graduates to attend university out of province is almost impossible so Manitoba, UBC or either Sask program (as previously noted) generally have a lock on their kids. Next you would turn to the great Junior A players, these players often tend to develop into high end university players, but generally take more time than their major junior counterparts. Saying that the best of these players go to United States on scholarship or you are often competing often with at least half of the twenty OUA teams (many of them great academic and sports schools in tremendous cities and who generally offer more opportunity earlier) for their services.
If we examine this year’s Mount Royal recruiting class we see that it is made up of mostly Junior A players. It makes it very tough to complete when you look at the line-up and recruiting class of their first week’s opponent Alberta Golden Bears. Gilling is well aware, he knows where his class stacks up versus Alberta and Saskatchewan and it is going to take time to get his young group up to speed. Time unfortunately this season might run out quickly.
Mount Royal is in Calgary, a great town that offers a lot to the university student. My concern is that MRU’s arena and campus is far out from main areas of Calgary (especially relative to U of C although everything in Calgary does seem like a 30-minute drive). Potential recruits use campus/arena/city all as factors in their decision making. When I was at McGill, it was one of the factors we emphasized when we spoke to recruits. We even used our primetime downtown location as advantage over rival Concordia even though their campus is considered to be in downtown Montreal. I am not saying this is always a major factor, but in recruiting it all matters.
The academic prowess and focus of the current players has grown exponentially and continues to each year. That is great for the league in general and for Mount Royal, whose school only became a degree granting university not long ago, and as of yet doesn’t offer the same variety of programs as say full established universities like Calgary, Alberta, Queen’s or McGill do. With players having more certainty these days as to what they want to study and what they want to do post-graduation a decision can often comes down to program availability.
The University of Alberta and the University of Saskatchewan, they are the standard of which Canada West runs by and every other coach knows to win the west it goes through at least one, if not both the Clare Drake and Rutherford Arenas. They are never weak, rarely average and most often competing for the conference title. It seems again we are at the beginnings of another golden period for both programs. They both have loaded rosters with talent that is young, highly skilled and eager to build on each of the program’s past successes. When these two programs are near their zenith, if your team is down in the talent at all you have almost no chance of beating them.
There is one caveat or potential cure-all and every hockey coach knows it – the GAGG rule – Get a Great Goalie. Mount Royal currently has three goalies; all of whom are or were highly regarded. Two years ago when MRU finished third, Colin Cooper was the Canada West Rookie All-Star goalie and stood on his head for most of the season and through the playoffs. If he, Cam Lanigan or Wyatt Hoflin can stabilize in the net then this young Cougar defence and team can potentially write the ship quickly. If not much of the early troubles will like continue or worsen.
Knowing Bert Gilling, I do believe that in time (probably sooner rather than later) he will right the ship and likely by the second half of the season, the Mount Royal Cougars will be as tough an out as any, but this former University coach thinks they are at the beginning of a new cycle and there is a ways to go until the Cougars are a top-three Canada West team again.