The 2014-15 season for the Golden Bears hockey team has been a nearly perfect one that will culminate at this weekend’s University Cup.
The Bears captured their third consecutive Canada West conference championship last week in front of a sellout crowd at the Clare Drake Arena on Friday night. Up against their provincial rivals, the University of Calgary Dinos, the Bears completed a two-game sweep, just one week after similarly sweeping the UBC Thunderbirds in the conference semi-finals.
The Bears vastly outshot the Dinos 80-29 throughout the two-game series, an unsurprising dominant performance from a team that boasted the second-ranked offence and defence in the country this season. In fact, the Bears only lost four regular season games all season, haven’t lost a game to a CIS team since January and have held onto the top spot in the national CIS rankings since the beginning of the season, earning the U of A the first place seed in this weekend’s national championship.
“It’s up to a lot of the character and the leadership in that dressing room. Guys come to this program expecting to challenge for a national title every year, but realize that it doesn’t just happen,” Golden Bears head coach Ian Herbers said. “You’ve got to do the preparation to put yourself in a position to challenge for a national title, and our guys have done that, and have done it very well.”
On Friday night, the Bears had difficulty securing the conference championship and putting the puck past Calgary netminder Jacob DeSerres, last year’s CIS goalie of the year, who made 39 saves. But the Bears’ tenacity paid off when CanWest Rookie of the Year Stephane Legault scored a breakaway goal with less than five minutes remaining to take the lead 2-1, bringing the raucous, sellout crowd of 3,009 fans to their feet.
“It’s definitely, by far, the best crowd building in the CanWest. There isn’t another program that matches us during the regular season, and then obviously during the playoffs, it was huge here,” Herbers said. “We’ve got a good student body population in the crowd, they’re loud and boisterous and chanting and getting on the opposition goalie, which is fantastic, and making it a fun atmosphere.”
Looking ahead, both the top-ranked Bears and sixth-ranked Dinos qualified for the University Cup in Halifax this weekend. The tournament’s host is St. Francis Xavier University, who are also the first round opponents for the Bears. Statistically, the St. FX X-Men are up against a clear mismatch against the Bears, but the Bears have dealt with heartbreak and disappointing finishes at nationals before.
“There’s going to be eight great teams there, and with the format where it’s just one game (elimination), anything can happen from a missed call to a bad bounce, or whatever the case is,” Herbers said.
“We’ve got to be ready for FX here on Friday night. They’ll be the favourite team in my books since it’s their building.”
On paper, the Bears’ strongest competition for the national championship is the AUS champion UNB Varsity Reds. New Brunswick is looking to continue their trend of winning a national championship every other year since 2007, after they finished their regular season with a 22-4-2 record and first place in the AUS standings for the eighth straight year.
“First and foremost, I don’t look ahead of FX, but UNB’s probably the favourite of that tournament,” fifth-year Bears goaltender Kurtis Mucha said. “They don’t have to deal with time zone changes, they’re at home basically. They’re definitely the favourite. But there will be some good teams there. St. FX will be ready to go, and I think we have UQTR and Acadia on our side too. Those teams are really good, we have to be ready to go and finish them off.”
With a successful University Cup tournament to cap off their year, the Bears would bring home their second straight University Cup and 15th national championship in team history. The win would also add a fitting end to the CIS careers of Golden Bear veterans like Mucha, Johnny Lazo, Jesse Craige, Zack Dailey and Drew Nichol.
“The guys last year in their fifth year, it was the best thing to walk off that ice as a national champion and end their career on a positive note,” Mucha said. “And I’ve seen guys lose their last game in my five years here…I want to be on that winning side and I want to come back in the room with a smile on my face and a big celebration.”