I don’t often mention Canadian university hockey on these pages but this week more than ever it is worth a thought or two.
U Sports (formerly known as CIS, rebranded last fall) is the most underrated and under-reported level of hockey in this country. The vast majority of Canada West conference rosters are comprised of former Western Hockey League players and collectively should be considered the second-best level of hockey available for fans, at least in greater Vancouver.
The University of British Columbia Thunderbirds men’s hockey program isn’t lined with historical achievements like their conference counterparts at the Universities of Alberta or Saskatchewan but talent wise and entertainment wise they are right up there. This past season the stats may show a big discrepancy in the standings but much like today’s NHL, there is very little separating the top from the bottom.
UBC struggled out of the gate this season in large part due to a late and unexpected coaching change when Adam Shell was relieved of his duties in late August. Assistant coach (and former Vancouver Canuck defenceman) Sven Butenschon took over on an interim basis before being officially named the program’s new head coach prior to the start of conference play. The T-Birds had a rough start to the schedule against the Huskies in Saskatoon followed by a pair of 1-0 losses in Calgary the following weekend beginning the season 0-4. But the team slowly crawled back and gained some serious momentum after the Christmas break.
In 2017 the T-Birds are 7-3-2 and enter this weekend’s Canada West quarter-final series with the Calgary Dinos on a four-game winning streak. Just getting into the post-season was no easy feat and after picking up just a single point in a weekend series in Lethbridge a few weeks ago it looked as if their playoff hopes may have been dashed. The ‘Birds had been in a battle with the Pronghorns for the last couple months for the conference’s sixth and final playoff berth and trailed Lethbridge by four points with just four games remaining.
The schedule for the final two weekends certainly favoured the Thunderbirds with a pair of home games against the last place Regina Cougars followed by a visit to Mount Royal while Lethbridge had to face the top two teams in the Canada West in Alberta and Saskatchewan in their last four contests. But even so, the ‘Birds still had to get the job done while also hoping for some help on the out of town scoreboard. Good thing for the ‘Birds, that’s exactly what happened.
UBC relatively easily earned the home-ice sweep of Regina while the Pronghorns picked up an overtime win over the Golden Bears as the T-Birds entered the final week of the season two points back of that coveted playoff spot. So it was down to a matter of which underdog team was going to outperform the other. UBC decided it would be them playing to a pair of hard-earned 2-1 victories over the Mount Royal Cougars. The Pronghorns lost at home Friday night to Saskatchewan and UBC’s final game victory had the ‘Birds temporarily in sixth agonizingly awaiting the results from the late game in Lethbridge. But the Huskies came through and in defeating the Pronghorns 5-4 allowed the Thunderbirds a trip to the playoffs.
It won’t be an easy weekend for the ‘Birds in Calgary for this best-of-three series and history is definitely not on UBC’s side. This marks the tenth time the two programs have met in the post-season since the 1969-70 campaign and the T-Birds have won only one of those previous series, back in 1971. But the ‘Birds need to be commended for their determination and drive to get to where they are right now. They have some serious momentum on their side and any team that has accomplished what they have with their backs up against the wall for that long should be seriously feared.