Another hockey season is upon us. Boston College’s men’s team takes to the ice tomorrow night in an exhibition game against the University of New Brunswick (7:00 PM, Warrior Ice Arena in Brighton). UNB is perennially one of Canada’s best college teams.
To preview the matchup, we chatted with David Kilfoil, veteran broadcaster of UNB Hockey and longtime follower of the Canadian collegiate game. He can be followed on Twitter at @DKilfoil.
1. Another season is upon us. How is it shaping up for UNB - perennially one of the best teams in CIS?
First, Brad Ackerson at The Brunswickan, the UNB student paper, has a good piece worth reading on the changes to UNB hockey: http://thebruns.ca/2017/09/06/retooled-v-reds-aim-for-third-straight-championship/
In my view, UNB had a great run the last three years (silver, and then two golds) because they had a young team that grew together, learned their roles, and became essentially a well-oiled machine. Phil Maillet became the best player in Canadian university hockey. Period. He is now in the AHL in the Kings organization. Jordan Murray, a late bloomer, was the best defenceman in Canada the last two years. No debate. He is now has a two-year AHL deal with Ottawa. Francis “Frankie Boy” Beauvillier was an underrated power forward. He is now in the AHL with Winnipeg. Matt Petgrave probably would have been the number one offensive d-man on any team not named UNB, and he is now in Pittsburgh’s AHL camp. Several other key players are now playing pro in Europe or the ECHL. No question, they have lost the core of their championship teams.
The AUS conference is the most competitive of the three hockey conference in Canada, so the work-in-progress that is now UNB will have the opportunity to build a new identity before the University Cup, which fortuitously is being hosted by the Varsity Reds, in Fredericton, in March. As host they are automatically in, so as Coach MacDougall jokes, they only have to win three games this season to win it all.
UNB still has their tradition of winning. There are some veterans left on the team that know what it takes to win big games, and they should be able to pass that along to the newbies. Coach Gardiner MacDougall is arguably the best recruiter in the country when it comes to evaluating talent and determining a player’s role on the team, so the recruits will no doubt become impact players as the season progresses. UNB was so stacked the last two years that some players underachieved and it didn’t really matter; those returnees need to step up this year if the V-Reds are going to repeat as champions. But the ultimate wild card is injuries – UNB this season can ill afford to lose any of their key players for any significant time.
2. Who are some UNB players BC fans should be watching out for on Saturday?
By default, Chris Clapperton becomes UNB’s go-to returning forward. He has yet to play a full season due to injuries, but he is a dependable point a game player and potential game breaker. He skates into the dirty areas of the ice, and is not afraid to take penalties. Rookie Kris Bennett is a gritty speedster who lit it up on Fridayversus Dalhousie University. Hard to miss on the ice is 6’5” Mark Simpson. The sophomore is usually used as a shutdown centre, but he has good hands too. Speaking of shutdown players, 5th year veteran and now MBA student Dylan Willick is a tireless penalty killer and one of the most unselfish players on the team. D-man Trey Lewis is a transfer student from rival StFX, where he was captain, and so far UNB has been using him up front as a punishing fore-checker. Oh, and don’t have your head down when veteran Mike Thomas is on the ice. Florida native Colin Suellentrop will probably go unnoticed, as he is a smooth, dependable, veteran defensive defenceman. I don’t know what to expect from heralded rookie Hayden Hodgson. The big power forward was in Columbus’ camp, and didn’t play in UNB’s two exhibition games. When healthy, lanky Chris Caissey is the best puck magician in confined spaces in the AUS.
3. What are some of UNB's strengths and weaknesses, based on the short sample size we have so far?
Right now there are a lot of unknowns with UNB – they are not the dependable machine we’ve known the last two or three years. Their “stars” have mostly moved on. They still play UNB hockey – “fast and faster” – and continue to be a puck possession, puck pursuit team. Based on their last game, they are playing less east-west hockey and more in-your-face hockey. They look to be becoming a more physical team than last year, while still having team speed (they were the quickest team in Canada last year, making them about middle-speed by NCAA standards). Some of their returning players are streaky, and need to become more consistent this year. Their new goalie, Ryan Parenteau, a bright Engineering student, looks to be a good complement to sophomore Alex Dubeau, who becomes the number one guy this year (for now). UNB’s rookies will be forced to adapt quicker this year than most to the style of play in the AUS.
4. Are these exhibition games useful for the CIS teams as they warm up for their seasons? Why do you think so many of these exhibitions have been marred by violent play and huge amounts of penalty minutes? (It should be noted that this is generally not the case with BC-UNB games, likely because they are often so evenly matched.)
This is an interesting question, because in my opinion different USports (I still haven’t adjusted to the change from the CIS brand …) hockey teams treat their US road trips differently. For national contenders like UNB, it is an early chance to test their team against an often (usually/always ?) superior NCAA opponent and see how they measure up. Those coaches say and believe you get better by playing better teams. For the non-contenders, many who are in Ontario, you hope not to get whipped too bad and try to take advantage of the team bonding on the long bus ride. For all teams it is of course an opportunity for the players to play in a NCAA rink that is probably new to them against a team they have never played before.
Ah yes, the penalty minutes. I’ve talked to a lot of players about that over the years, and witnessed a fair share of CIAU/CIS/USports – NCAA games in my time. First, the games are definitely called differently in NCAA rinks. Canadian teams play a fairly physical game, and what is a normal “good” hockey hit in their rinks often gets whistled as a rough, or boarding or something else in the States. Don’t forget, USports teams are jacked up when they play NCAA teams, and in their perceived underdog role they want to go out there and send a message. In turn, they tend to feel that NCAA refs are trying to “protect” the American players from physical contact. Hockey is a contact sport after all. Well up here it is.
Also, some teams have players who didn’t get the NCAA scholarship they hoped for, so they have a bit more to prove when they step on the ice. Then there is the whole Canada-USA hockey thing (I know, I know, there are Canadians and Americans on both sides). So anyways, back to penalties. The USports players often get frustrated with the calls, especially if there is a scrum and someone gets a 10 minute penalty for accidently grabbing a facemask (which is not a thing up here because everyone plays with a visor). So usually the Canadian team takes early “mystery” penalties. And the NCAA team scores on the power play. Rinse and repeat. Now the Canadian team is starting to get blown out, and real frustration sets in. Then you have the potential for shit shows, with some but not all teams. Pride can be a terrible thing.
But in a nutshell, most USports coaches seem to feel that they are victims of a lot of “ticky-tack” penalties when they play in the States. And that NCAA refs call the game too tight to keep it from getting out of hand, which inevitably leads to the game getting out of hand.
5. There is a lot of talk about the NCAA/CHL wars on this side of the border for obvious reasons. Do CIS schools participate in this discussion? I know the current state of affairs may well be to CIS teams' benefit, as players who play in the CHL and age out can play for CIS teams, but do not have NCAA eligibility.
War? What war? USports hockey is happy to be a partner with the CHL: Major Junior players earn education packages while they play, and when they age out of Junior they come to a Canadian university (or community college, or technical or trade school) with usually four years of paid tuition. Win-win. As you know, as soon as they play one game of Major Junior, they’re all ours.
However, in other sports, like basketball, soccer, volleyball and women’s hockey, USports is now trying to fight back against the NCAA and “bring Canadians home”. So if you took that scholarship to play soccer in the States, only to spend your first year on the bench or not dressed, well you can now transfer back to a Canadian school and no longer have to sit out a year to regain your eligibility. Also with women’s hockey, they are piloting letting schools increase their sports scholarships (known as Athletic Financial Awards in Canadian) closer to full rides. For all other sports, the Canadian school can only cover tuition and nothing more, and only 70% of the team can get the max AFA. But players could sell their autographs, if there was actually a market. Did I mention that there is no TV money in USports, and no coach is paid more than a university president?