In what has become a marquee event for Calgary, the Crowchild Classic draws thousands of hockey fans to the city’s biggest arena, the Scotiabank Saddledome. On a cold February evening, the so-called crosstown smackdown features Calgary’s rival university hockey teams — the Mount Royal University Cougars and the University of Calgary Dinos. The Cougars have only been playing university-level hockey for a few years. To understand the team today, we go back in time.

The MRC Cougars

Former Cougars hockey player Cliff Hendrickson, 67, recalls an incredible college team that had just as much heart as it does today.

In the 71-72 season, Hendrickson was the assistant captain and played left wing. On a scholarship and studying business administration, he recalls a smaller team that was part of the Alberta Junior Hockey League. He says the team didn’t even make the move to the new campus, and played on a small rink in downtown Calgary.

Although Hendrickson’s playing days are behind him, his life still very much revolves around hockey and his heart still belongs with the Cougar Nation.

“Mount Royal College for me, is probably the two best years of sports in my life,” says Hendrickson, who is now part-owner of Stick Fix Calgary, a company that repairs expensive sports equipment for young athletes.

Team 1971

Former Mount Royal Cougar, Cliff Hendrickson (middle row, 4th from right) was a left-winger for the college team in 1971. He’s still a big fan who attends the marquee Crowchild Classic every year. Photo courtesy of MRU archives. 

With photos proudly hung up on the wall, Hendrickson beams with pride and is eager to share his favourite memories, one being the MRC Cougars winning the ACAC Western Canadian Championships in Manitoba.

“We always had a very competitive team at Mount Royal and basically applied the simple philosophy of playing shift by shift in hockey to equal the work strategy of day by day,” says Hendrickson, adding that the team “never” gave up.

The Cougars today

Fast forward to 2017.

MRC is now MRU. The Cougars have jumped into the national USports level of play. The team continues to attract players who exude the same energy as Hendrickson. Forward Devin Gannon, 25, is one of them.

A geography and environmental studies student, Gannon was in the centre of the action at the Crowchild Classic. The excitement for the women’s and men’s games was palpable, but didn’t translate into success for Gannon and his team. While the MRU women’s team beat their U of C competitors, the men’s team lost in double overtime, and has continued to struggle in regular season play.

But Gannon is resolute about one thing — the team is helping him to grow, both on and off the ice.

“The values and skills that you develop being part of Cougar Athletics extends away from the arena, into school and also all other aspects of your life,” he says.

Devin Gannon

Hockey forward Devin Gannon, #9, says the Mount Royal Cougars help him to grow both on and off the ice. Photo courtesy Brenden Stasiewich.

Growing up, hockey has always been a big part of Gannon’s life. He fondly recalls playing with childhood friends all the way back in Kamloops, B.C. As a Cougar, he says he has the same sort of feelings, knowing that as a group they not only grow as players but as friends as well.

“We spend pretty much every day together including 6:30 a.m. workouts and [lots of] traveling.”

Cougars' coaches play a big role

Gannon also credits coach Bert Gilling with doing an excellent job of mentoring the players both on and off the ice.

Gilling is a two-time Coach of the Year for USports Canada West.

“He demands the best out of us and that is important. He is great for Mount Royal Athletics and he challenges everyone to be better.”

Gilling has a clear vision of what he expects from his players, not just developing them as athletes, but also making sure they are focused on academics and have a plan for their future.

Speaking from his many years coaching and playing University hockey, Gilling stresses: “As a hockey team, we want to win and be relevant in the hockey world and here in Calgary, but we also want to develop and advance our players in the professional ranks, and with that, we want our players to earn their degrees and set themselves up for the rest of their lives.”

Cougars coaching is something Cliff Hendrickson still talks about more than four decades after hanging up his college skates.

“Great coaches and great teammates, just the best time of my life,” he says.

Alumni are big boosters

To this day, Hendrickson is still very much involved with the team and does everything he can to spread the word about the Crowchild Classic, which he attends every year with his fellow alumni.

Hendrickson understands how far the Cougars have come, and sees how much potential they have.

“Next to the Flames, Canada West is the best hockey in the city,” he says.

Hendrickon’s enthusiasm is echoed by coach Gilling.

“With every year and every event, Cougar Athletics and the Canada West hockey program continue to grow, and how far we have come in a few short years. The sky's the limit. It's really fun to be part of it.”

Cougars hockey isn’t just fun, says Hendrickson, but is also critical to every player’s personal growth, a sentiment also shared by 25-year-old Gannon.

“Obviously, you grow a lot in your early twenties as a player. Any athletics, any sport, pushes you out of your comfort zone. It helps you grow as a person, in terms of the values you develop with the team. I wouldn’t trade my hockey career for anything. I believe it helped shape the person I am today.”

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