Canadian university hockey a hidden gem

HALIFAX, Nova Scotia – The best-kept secret in Canadian hockey circles is played out on university campuses across the country each winter as young men represent their schools in pursuit of the University Cup, the prize awarded to the top men’s university hockey team in the country.

The UNB Varsity Reds won the AUS and CIS titles in 2012-13. Photo courtesy Brian Smith/AUS

The UNB Varsity Reds won the AUS and CIS titles in 2012-13. Photo courtesy Brian Smith/AUS

Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) men’s hockey is a hidden gem that doesn’t always get the attention it deserves. The level of hockey is higher than our major junior and junior A leagues, and for the most part in on par with ‘AA’ professional leagues such as the ECHL or Central Hockey League.

The battle for the University Cup is as intense as any hockey championship in Canada, with rivalries between schools and conferences dating back years and in some cases, decades.

A modest but passionate fan base follows this level of hockey with great interest and even greater anticipation, awaiting each season’s opening night the same way a child awaits the first day of summer vacation.

CIS players have all graduated from junior hockey, with the bulk of the talent having already spent three or four years in one of Canada’s major junior leagues. CIS hockey even includes a few former pros that have returned to school to finish their degrees, helping to raise the standard of play to even greater heights.

Typically, players are anywhere between 20 and 27 years old. Many of them will go on to play professionally in North American minor pro leagues or in Europe and a few will eventually work their way to the NHL.

Among the CIS’ most notable hockey graduates are former NHLers Mathieu Darche, Jody Shelley, Steve Rucchin, Stu Grimson, P.J. Stock and Cory Cross. Current Washington Capitals forward Joel Ward spent fours seasons in the CIS with the UPEI Panthers before spending the past five years in the show, while former UNB Varsity Reds winger Kevin Henderson made a positive impression with the Nashville Predators during a brief call-up last season.

The CIS’ most accomplished alumni is Detroit Red Wings bench boss Mike Babcock, who guided the University of Lethbridge to a national championship as the club’s head coach during the 1993-94 season. Carolina Hurricanes head coach Kirk Muller also cut his coaching teeth in the CIS, spending one year behind the bench at Queen’s University in 2005-06.

It is my pleasure to bring the excitement, enthusiasm and passion of CIS hockey to the readers of Pro Hockey News. My coverage will focus on the Atlantic University Sport (AUS) Hockey Conference, which includes teams from the Canadian provinces of Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick.

AUS logoThis is the premier conference in Canadian university hockey, with perennial national contenders such as the UNB Varsity Reds and Saint Mary’s Huskies routinely fighting for top spot. These clubs actually met in the national championship game last season, with the Varsity Reds taking a 2-0 victory to win their fourth University Cup in the past seven years.

Joining the Reds and Huskies are up-and-coming teams such as the UPEI Panthers, Moncton Blue Eagles and St. Francis Xavier X-Men, while the Acadia Axemen are always a threat to upend the big two at the top of the standings. The St. Thomas Tommies and Dalhousie Tigers are both feeling the pains of rebuilding, however they are hoping for brighter days heading into the 2013-14 campaign.

The season starts on Oct. 18, and like other fans of university hockey, I simply can’t wait for the puck to drop. I hope Pro Hockey News readers are as excited as I am to follow this brand of hockey.

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