There's a lot of familiarity in the college hockey world. With only 59 teams and with most games being conference games, we know what to expect most of the time. But these Canadian exhibition games are pretty mysterious. Even the most diehard fans don't know much about CIS hockey and what to expect from these teams. To help us prepare for Saturday, David Kilfoil, who does TV and radio broadcasts for the Varsity Reds and was directed to us at the recommendation of UNB Hockey Fans, a blog covering UNB hockey, agreed to answer some questions for us.Let us begin!
1. First things first: for those unfamiliar with UNB and CIS hockey, how would you describe the background and pedigree of most of the Varsity Reds' players? Are they mostly guys who graduated out of major junior? Are many considered prospects with the potential to latch on to an NHL organization? And based on your knowledge, how do you think the talent level of the V-Reds stacks up with NCAA teams we may be familiar with? How old are most of the players on the team?
David Kilfoil: All of the UNB players played Major Junior, and most through their over-age 20 year old year. Several have some minor pro experience, and both of their new goalies played some AHL. The CIS is more relaxed towards pro hockey. First, only the NCAA considers Major Junior hockey to be pro hockey. True pros have to sit out 365 days from their last pro game, and lose one year of CIS eligibility for every year of pro. All CIS student-athletes have 5 years of eligibility. Thus UNB's goalies both sat out last year, and one "rookie" has one year of eligibility, this season, and the other has two years of eligibility.
This UNB team has had a lot of turnover. Only 10 guys are back from last season, and only 5 from their national championship team of two years ago. Even with all of the changes, UNB will be one of the early favourites for the national championship, and in the first poll this week they're ranked #3, and tops in the AUS.
The UNB players are no longer "prospects" per se, but they do get scouted for minor pro teams and some get invited to NHL summer rookie camps. Their top players, like Daine Todd, played in the AHL last season with Portland and this season is playing in the KHL with Jokerit in Helsinki. Several of the grads from last year are in AHL camps right now hoping to stick, while their former captain from last year decided to take the fun route and is playing with one of his buddies in Europe.
In the past, Hockey East coaches have told me that UNB would be at least in the middle of the pack if they played in the NCAA. They're older than the average NCAA player (an average of 22.7 this season) so they have more hockey experience and poise; this somewhat makes up for having no Johnny Hockeys on the roster. By CIS standards, UNB is a very quick team; this makes them about average by NCAA standards. NCAA coaches say UNB plays more of a "pro game," more north-south than east-west. Though if you ask the UNB coach he'll often say that he wishes his players would play a "simpler" game; they often seem to look for the perfect pass or pretty play.
2. Tell the uninitiated a little bit about CIS hockey: how the season is structured, who UNB plays against, what attendance and media coverage is like, etc. This is kind of an unknown world to a lot of American fans.
CIS hockey does not get a lot of media attention in Canada, outside of a few pockets. In Canada, hockey is all about the NHL and Major Junior (the CHL). Junior A is popular regionally, but not nationally.
Attendance isn't great either. The Halifax Mooseheads from the Q can sometimes draw ten thousand fans, but the two CIS teams in Halifax, Saint Mary's (SMU) and Dal are lucky if they can draw more than a few hundred fans to a regular season game. UNB has the top attendance in the CIS with an average of 2,400 fans (but draws 1,600 for a lot of games, their season ticket base).
There are three hockey conferences in the CIS, determined by geography. The AUS has 8 teams in the Maritimes, Canada West has 8 teams in the western provinces, and the OUA is a double-conference with 20 teams from Ontario and Quebec in two divisions. Each team plays 28 regular season games in their conference. There are no out of conference games other than exhibition games in the preseason or during the Christmas break. Each conference does their playoffs differently. The national championship is the University Cup. The #ucup used to be a "Final 6" format, with two 3-team pools, but it is changing this season to a single-elimination "Final 8" with one host team.
The AUS and Canada West are the two stronger conferences and most competitive; only about half of the 20 OUA teams are as competitive, and probably only their top 5 are going to get ranked in the CIS Top 10 during the season.
UNB and Alberta have been the top two teams in the CIS for the last ten years.
3. There has been some talk in recent years about welcoming Canadian schools into the NCAA. Is that something you think UNB and some of their hockey rivals would ever want to do? How successful would that kind of move be?
Not ever going to happen. Well, unless the NCAA gives up their prohibition on Major Junior players, which is the core of the top CIS teams. And even then, probably not.
The NCAA competes with the CHL for prospects, while the CIS cooperates with the CHL by providing the university opportunity for CHL grads using their CHL-provided education packages. Major Junior players earn a year's tuition at a Canadian university of their choice for every year they play in the CHL.
4. The V-Reds had a really strong season last year, going 24-4 in the regular season before falling in the AUS semi-finals. This year, they are off to a strong start in preseason with 3 wins in 3 games. How good is UNB supposed to be this year? Any major departures or recruits?
Although UNB has three wins, their first two were against comparatively weak opponents and their one-goal win against Moncton on Friday was more indicative of where they're at. UNB goes into every season expecting to contend for the University Cup. Anything less is a failure. They've won 4 of the last #ucups (2007, 2009, 2011 and 2013) and thus are due this year. For me, it is too early yet to know if this team has what it needs to go the distance.
As I said earlier, there are only 10 players from last season, and there are 11 new players this season. Two of them are transfers from other AUS teams who graduated and are now in grad school at UNB.
Among the newbies, all eyes will be on the two goalies. David Shantz is 28 and has not been playing ANY hockey since 2011 when he played for Victoria in the ECHL. He'll the new #1. Chris Carrozzi played mostly in the ECHL two seasons ago. He was red-shirting last season and played some senior hockey.
Among the true rookies, Randy Gazzola and Colin Suellentrop look to be studs on the blue-line. Cam Brace and Peter Trainor had big numbers in Junior, but Brace has so far adapted better to the V-Reds game. Matt Boudens and Chris Caissy look like they're going to be strong 2-way players.
5. Who are some standout players on UNB to keep an eye on?
UNB's top line is power forward Tyler Carroll and the two Phils. Carroll is a left winger who has been moved to centre this year, and Halley and Maillet are both smaller quick players who work real well together.
On the back end both Matt Petgrave and transfer Alex Wall love to jump into the rush, and aren't afraid to go end to end. Adrian Robertson and Jordan Murray both have good point shots.
One of the new UNB forwards to watch is Rob Mignardi. Back in the summer of 2011 he was being recruited by both UNB and Saint Mary's. Some background: In the CIS there are no binding letters of intent, so all recruits are true free agents until they actually appear on a game roster sheet. In the AUS conference, there have been players go to one school's late summer training camp, and then a few weeks later pop up at a competing school. As long as you've applied to and been accepted at multiple schools, you don't have to make up your mind until the last minute.
Mignardi was one of those cases. In 2011, both Gardiner MacDougall from UNB and Trevor Stienburg from SMU thought they had a commitment from Mignardi. Both schools announced him as a recruit. This then led to understandable bad feelings between MacDougall and Stienburg (who weren't best of buds to begin with), who each thought the other had crossed the recruiting line. The best I've been able to find out was that Mignardi and/or his agent (his father?) may have been playing the two coaches off against each other to get the best deal for the player. It was a bit of an ugly situation. Well, Mignardi didn't go to UNB or SMU, but instead signed an AHL deal with Manchester. After two years of pro hockey in the AHL and ECHL, Mignardi showed up at UNB last fall, and red-shirted to get his eligibility back. He's on the roster now, and is in year 3 of his five years of eligibility. He's only played a game and half for UNB so far in the exhibition season as he received a major penalty for checking to the head in the first period against the Nipissing Lakers (the school is in North Bay, ON) and was therefore suspended for the Moncton game.
6. What kind of game should BC fans expect to see on Saturday? Historically, a lot of these NCAA vs. CIS games have been very physical affairs. Is that what you'd expect, or is that not UNB's style?
UNB is a puck possession, puck pursuit team and rarely dump the puck in when they play CIS teams. They are a skilled team, and when they lose it is because they got out-muscled or the opposing goalie stood on his head and stole the game. The V-Reds tend to be well-disciplined as a point of pride and rarely lose it. Unfortunately, a lot of other CIS teams get frustrated when they get outplayed in the States, and then revert to their thuggery from Junior.
That's not to say UNB won't play a physical game. They'll certainly finish their checks, and especially the third and fourth energy lines. But that's not their whole game plan, unlike some CIS teams.
7. Last year, the V-Reds played three games against NCAA opposition, beating Denver, losing to Colorado College, and losing to Maine in OT. How big of a deal are these NCAA exhibitions to the team? Is it a big deal to try to go out and win these games or is the focus more on pre-season conditioning?
UNB takes games against NCAA teams VERY seriously. As one of the best teams in the CIS there's a lot of pride on the line for the veteran players. That being said, it is a preseason game so Coach MacDougall will be looking to see how his new players respond against very good NCAA opponents. But he wants to win badly, because he's just so competitive.
8. Feel like going on a limb and making any predictions for the game? How about for UNB's season in CIS?
When UNB defeats NCAA teams it is normally because they jump out to an early lead and then hold off the Americans as they get their skates under them. To win they also have to maintain their systems and not get caught reacting to NCAA players buzzing all around the ice.
One big challenge for UNB and all CIS teams on these road trips is the unfamiliar referring in Hockey East. The game is called different. Some plays that are penalties in the CIS aren't called in the NCAA, and vice versa.
With all the new players I don't enough of a feel yet for this team. So all I will predict is that it should be a good game.
Thanks so much to David for answering our questions. Thanks also to Ken Critchley of UNBHockeyFans.com, and UNB stat guy Eric Drummie for sending along more information about the V-Reds. The puck drops on Saturday at 7 PM. Go Eagles!