After hosting the CIS national championships in the City of Champions last March, head coach Howie Draper and the Pandas hockey team look to return to the big stage this March in Toronto — but they’ll need to get past their Canada West opponents first.
“All the Canada West teams are strong — there’s no weak sister,” longtime Pandas head coach Draper said of the level of competition the Pandas face in their conference. The team’s schedule kicks off Friday in Winnipeg against the University of Manitoba.
Draper noted he’s impressed with the parity in the Canada West conference this season. With the level of skill from all the teams, it often seems any team can win on any given night, no matter the opponent. But the team to beat in the conference this season is naturally the University of Calgary Dinos, defending CanWest and CIS champions.
“Obviously, Calgary has Wickenhieser and other players who are capable of playing on an international level,” Draper said, noting the stiff competition from other schools as well.
“Manitoba’s improved on their goaltending from last season. Saskatchewan, who beat us three times out of four last season, had a pretty young team last year, but they’re coming back older and more experienced. And there’s Lethbridge, who we weren’t able to beat last year.”
The Pandas enter Friday night’s contest after a preseason campaign that saw the team go 5-0-1, culminating on Sunday in a shootout loss to the Queen’s University Gaels in a tournament in Lethbridge. Despite the loss, the team’s preseason record remains impressive with the lack of a loss in regulation throughout these six games.
“Things are going well,” Draper said. “We’ve increased our team speed and upped our skill level, especially with the addition of both new players and experienced returning ones.”
The Pandas also have plenty of new faces on their roster this year, which will make for an interesting dynamic for Draper and the team as they look to return to nationals. So far, the head coach likes what he’s seeing from his new look team.
“I don’t want to single any one particular player out, but so far we’re very happy with all the new players on the team,” Draper said. “Even with the addition of lots of new players, the team’s starting to gel as players are starting to get used to each other.”
As for the keys to success for the Pandas, Draper says it’s all on them to decide how far they go this season.
“We have to keep growing as a unit, and so far it’s looking promising,” he said. “We’ve gotten stronger and stronger with every game.”
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