Why post-secondary games are worth watching

It is certainly a depressing time for National Hockey League fans.

With the 2012-2013 NHL season nearly locked out officially, and no NHL hockey on the horizon for the foreseeable future because of the current player and owner contract dispute – hockey fans may be wondering where to get their fix.

Some fans may be looking to the hometown Calgary Hitmen of the Western Hockey League for men’s hockey. But with tickets selling fast it may prove much more difficult to see a Hitmen game live than in years past.

However, another option is widely available to Calgarians – university hockey.

Cougars goalie Justin Cote figures he and his teammates are going to be in a lot of entertaining, tight, close games this season.

Photo by Landon WesleyMark Howell, the head coach of the University of Calgary Dinos men’s hockey team, said university hockey is often forgotten.

“Unfortunately there’s not enough awareness about the level of hockey we play at,” said Howell. “Fans would be pleasantly surprised how good our hockey is. A lot of our guys have been drafted by NHL teams, and pretty much all our guys are former WHL players.”

The head coach of the Mount Royal Cougars men’s hockey squad, Jean Laforest, had a similar opinion to Howell’s.

“The caliber of play and the majority of guys are ex- major junior players, so it’s not a whole lot different from the product people are seeing down at the Saddledome with the Hitmen,” Laforest said.

Howell added, “A handful of our guys have a chance to make a living of the game. They have chosen to get their degree and education taken care of before they look at that route.”

“It’s probably the biggest secret, and best kept secret in hockey in our city – the level and quality of play that the Dinos and ourselves bring.” – Jean Laforest, Cougars head coach.With hockey being played at both Mount Royal University and the University of Calgary – as well as at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology – hockey fans have numerous options of where to go watch their favorite sport this winter.

“People don’t realize where exactly these guys come from,” said Lance Doucet, a sports information assistant at the U of C.

Doucet feels once people come and watch university-level hockey for the first time they will want to come back for more.

“They are all players that have been stars in junior leagues. People expose themselves to this hockey and they see what kind of quality it is,” said Doucet.

MRU’s Laforest noted,: “It’s probably the biggest secret, and best kept secret in hockey in our city – the level and quality of play that the Dinos and ourselves bring.”

What to expect

Dinos head coach Mark Howell (right) and Dinos defenseman Giffen Nyren (left) go over some plays in a team practice.

Photo by Landon Wesley

Some hockey fans may assume the level of play in the Canadian Interuniversity Sports (CIS) league does not compare to that of the WHL. But fifth-year Dinos goaltender Dustin Butler encourages bystanders to think otherwise.

“We are all grown men playing against each other. In our league you don’t play many games; you have to compete extremely hard,” said Butler.

In CIS there are only 28 games played by each team during the regular season. Yet in the WHL there are 72 games played by each team.

With so few games being played in the CIS it is imperative for teams to play extremely competitively every game, Butler said.

Butler noted, “Every game is so much, if you get swept in a weekend it’s like losing five to 10 games in the WHL. You have to bring it.”

Another fifth-year goaltender, Justin Cote of the Cougars, also suggested every game in the CIS is going to be competitive every night: “Everyone’s got some good players and depth in their lineups. Any team can win on any given night. There are no giveaways this year against teams of this caliber.”

Cote’s teammate, Eric Galbraith, reflected on how winning games this year would be tougher compared to last year, when the MRU Cougars still played in the college league, before moving up to university- level play this season.

“We got away with winning some games last year strictly on talent, but now coming into CIS I think we are going to have to work a lot harder,” Galbraith said. “We are going to have to outwork teams to beat teams.”

Give it a chance

In a competitive university league, Cougar goalie Justin Cote has to make diving saves such as this one to keep his team in tight games against tough opponents.

Photo by Landon WesleyThese university players said they truly appreciate fanfare at their games as well. Like any athlete, these guys just want people to enjoy the product they bring on the ice.

“Having the fans makes a huge difference,” said Dinos forward Taylor Stefishen. “Going into an empty arena kind of kills any of the energy, so when a crowd is there and they get into it, it lifts your spirits and makes you go out there and work harder.”

Going to games does not come at much of a price either. If you have a student ID card for the University of Calgary, you can get into games for free. Same thing goes for Mount Royal University as well.

If you are not a student at either school – not a big deal. Tickets are usually $8-$12 each, and children under six get in for free.

Giffen Nyren, a Dinos defenseman and player with Western Hockey League experience, hopes people will come out and give university hockey a chance.

“People watch the WHL from these kids being 17-20 years old and it is great hockey,” Nyren said. “Well now these kids are 21-25 and we are that much better players, that much crisper. The hockey is really good.”

lwesley@cjournal.ca