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U Sports conferences earning increased attention for the quality of their play and the quality of their players
The U Sports David Johnston Cup tournament, which wound up in Lethbridge, Alta., earlier this week with Tyler Boland of St. John’s and his UNB Varsity Reds teammates hoisting the championship trophy, was another reminder Canadian university hockey may be the game’s most underrated brand.
Boland, the runner-up in scoring in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League two years ago, is a fine example of those who populate rosters on U Sports men’s teams, players who are the owners of significant skill levels, high-revving motors and notable character.
In fact, of the 23 players on the Varsity Reds championship lineup, every one of them came from the major junior ranks, and 19 of the team’s skaters — Boland included — were captains or assistant captains on their junior teams.
Granted, Canadian universities aren’t known for being producers of NHL talent, and most collegiate hockey players in this country have, at some time in their junior careers, been found wanting of something in big-league scouts’ evaluations, skating speed being of the more notable source of demerits.
Nevertheless, there have been exceptions. Joel Ward, P.J, Stock, Jody Shelley, Mathieu Darche and Derek Ryan, the latter currently with the Calgary Flames, are players of recent vintage who had NHL careers after skating for a Canadian university team. Heck, Corner Brook’s Doug Grant, the first goaltender from Newfoundland and Labrador to play in the NHL, was originally identified by the Detroit Red Wings after he played for a year at Memorial University, back when Memorial participated in Atlantic varsity hockey.
Two players on the Varsity Reds — team leading scorer Christopher Clapperton and fellow forward Samuel Dove-McFalls — have already been drafted by NHL teams and a few who have tried their hands at the pro ranks before heading to university before the deadline expired on the CHL scholarship money they earned as juniors.
More and more, U Sports players are showing up on the minor professional teams, with St. John’s native Marcus Power, the former UPEI standout who is now the leading rookie scorer on the Newfoundland Growlers, being one of them. Many others, including Newfoundlanders Alex Wall (UPEI/UNB) and Chris Owens (Acadia), have established themselves in European circuits.
And NHL teams are starting to take a second look at U Sports players they may have passed on as juniors. With expansion to Vegas and Seattle its means that by 2021, there will be 100 NHL contracts that weren’t available a couple years ago, the scouting net is being cast wider, with Canadian university conferences being targeted to a greater degree.
There was plenty of NHL scouting representation — Flames GM Brad Treliving included — at the national championships in Lethbridge, where Boland had a goal, two assists and a plus-four rating in UNB’s three wins, including a 4-2 doubling of the defending champion Alberta Golden Bears in Sunday’s final.
Boland wasn’t the only player from this province celebrating a win in Lethbridge on Sunday.
Earlier in the day, the St. Francis Xavier X-Men, coached by Goulds native Brad Peddle and with a roster featuring Aaron Hoyles (Gander), Adam Holwell (St. John’s) and Marcus Cuomo (St. John’s) claimed the bronze medal with a 5-1 victory over the Saskatchewan Huskies.
Like Boland, all three Newfoundlanders on the X-Men are graduates of the QMJHL.
Holwell, a rookie rearguard with St. FX, scored twice in the third-place game, including what would officially be the winning tally.