CIS Canada West preview: UBC eyes National Finals repeat

A possible UBC repeat may hinge on new goalies’ performances

UBC Thunderbirds made the CIS National Finals Championship Game last year showing the growing depth of the Canada West Conference.

Each year, Canada West Universities Athletic Association sees an increase in parity and competitiveness among the teams. It is a league that has played host to Olympians and shown an amazing amount of growth in even the last five years.

As the Canada West Conference starts, all eight teams are looking to renew rivalries and dethrone the UBC Thunderbirds as Canada West Champions. New players on each team will give this year give each team a slightly different look, but some things have remained the same. When the homestretch comes, every team will be battling for those two all-important spots at CIS Nationals.

The University of Alberta Pandas are perennial favorites, with more Canada West titles than any other team, but they’ve been facing tough competition in recent years. The Calgary Dinos finished last season with an incredible run that allowed them to make the playoffs and they look to repeat that magic. Meanwhile, the Manitoba Bisons will be looking to finally capture another Canada West title after making the finals for the last two seasons. With the Huskies, two sets of Cougars and the physical play of the Lethbridge Pronghorns, the rest of the Canada West Conference looks no less interesting.

University of Alberta Pandas

Last season: The Pandas were 15-9-1-3 in 2015-2016 and finished the regular season ranked first in the Canada West Conference. They had a fantastic finish to the regular season, which was filled primarily with games on the road.

Key departures: The Pandas continue to be a strong team despite the losses of Janelle Froehler, Allison Campbell, Tess Houston and Lindsey Cunningham. While the Pandas’ offense has remained a sort of “scoring by committee” situation, Houston, Campbell and Cunningham were a steadying presence. Froehler’s ability to stymy opponents and her presence on the penalty kill will be missed.

Incoming players to watch: The Pandas welcome an incoming class of first-year players that includes Lisa Lloyd from the Okanagan Hockey Academy; Erica Nelson, Kennedy Ganser and Lindsay Weech from the Warner Warriors; Kelsey Tangjerd and Jaslin Sawatzky from the Calgary Fire; Hannah Fouillard from the Yellowhead Chiefs located in Winnipeg; and Emma Merlo from Edge Girls Prep of the Canadian Sport School Hockey League.

If the Pandas’ early preseason 9-0 win against the NAIT Ooks is any indication, these new players seem to fit right in.

Returning players to watch: Starting goaltender Lindsey Post reached milestones in both time on ice and shutouts during the 2015-2016 season. Alex Poznikoff, who was the team’s leading scorer with 16 points, including 11 goals, should have an exciting season if she can avoid the sophomore slump. Pozinkoff spent some time with the CIS team this summer competing against the Canadian National Women’s program, so signs point to a promising second year. Megan Eady is an NCAA transplant from Robert Morris University who made a definite mark on the Pandas’ blue line last season. Eady’s point shot is a gift on the power play, and because this is her fifth year of eligibility, the Pandas will be looking for her to step into a leadership role.

Season outlook: The Pandas may start the season against the University of Calgary Dinos, but they will be looking forward to their matchups with the University of Manitoba Bisons. The Bisons eliminated the Pandas from the Canada West semifinals last year, and the year before the Pandas beat the Bisons in the Canada West Finals. These playoff meetings have added an extra level of rivalry to the Pandas’ games with the Bisons, which are  always fast paced and enjoyable.

The Pandas hockey program has spent time in the news this summer for their connection to the community. The Pandas program teamed up with Hockey Edmonton to fill the role of elite mentors for players at the Bantam and Midget AAA level. Hockey Edmonton believes “the Pandas and coach Howie Draper have been pioneers in the development of female hockey in the country.” Announced in early June, this partnership brings the Pandas into the spotlight as a successful team dedicated to the growth of the game. “We want to ensure the players that play hockey have the best opportunity to reach whatever goals they may have in the sport,” Draper said. This will hold a lot of the Pandas focus this season as the attempt to integrate this commitment into their season.

University of British Columbia Thunderbirds

Last season: The  Thunderbirds won the Canada West Championship and made it all the way to the CIS Nationals championship game after finishing in second place in the conference with a 13-9-3-3 record. Head coach Graham Thomas thinks the last year was an excellent stepping stone for building women’s hockey at UBC: "I think we earned some respect with the finish last year," said Thomas. "More than that, I think playing at Nationals and getting that far gives the girls confidence in themselves – they know they can do it. Now, it's just a matter of taking that next step."

Key departures: With a fairly young team and only four outgoing fifth-year players, a repeat performance is definitely possible. However, the loss of goalies in Samantha Langford and Danielle Dube is definitely something the Thunderbirds will have to manage carefully. With Cailey Hay and Rebecca Unrau as the only other departing players, UBC’s defense may be strong enough to allow their first-year goalies to get their feet under them.

Incoming players to watch: Danielle Wierenga from the Fraser Valley Rush and Tory Micklash from St. Mary’s Academy step between the pipes for the Thunderbirds and look to have a strong showing immediately. They are joined by Mairead Bast from the Pursuit of Excellence Academy, Tiffany Chiu from the Greater Vancouver Comets, Amelia Boughn from Cornell University, and Kenzie Robinson and Jaedon Cooke, both from the Westman Wildcats.

Returning players to watch: Kristen Toth returns for her final year of eligibility. This University of Alberta transplant is a force on the blue line, and at 5’11” is one of the most imposing players on the ice. Her size isn’t always an advantage, though, as Toth also spends a decent amount of time in the penalty box. If she can limit her penalty minutes, she should be able to make a substantial impact. Kathleen Cahoon is the top returning scorer with 12 goals and 9 assists for 21 points. Her offensive talents should be bolstered by Kelly Murray, who finished 16th in scoring in Canada West last year despite playing defense.

Season outlook: An  late-October matchup with the Pandas will serve as measuring stick for the Thunderbirds. Despite an incredibly successful season, the Thunderbirds lost their early games to the Pandas and only managed a 1-2-2-0 record, with their second victory coming in overtime.

University of Regina Cougars

Last season: The University of Regina Cougars went 12-9-5-1 for a third place finish. The Cougars were eliminated in the semifinals of the Canada West Playoffs by the UBC Thunderbirds.

Key departures: The Cougars are a team with relatively few graduating players, losing only four players: Carleen Meszaros, Brooklyn Moskowy, Stephanie Sawchuk and goaltender Toni Ross. Ross is a particularly difficult loss for the Cougars. Despite being only 5’1”, Ross played 25 games for the Cougars and had the second best save percentage in the conference at .929.

Incoming players to watch: The Cougars will be suited to compete against larger teams, as incoming first-years are primarily all bigger players, highlighted by Merissa Zerr from the Swift Current Wildcats, Elise Endicott from the Weyburn Gold Wings, Lilla Carpenter-Bosch from the Regina Rebels, Chelsea Hallson from the Central Plains Capitals, Mariah McKersie from the Notre Dame Hounds and Sam Geekie from the Yellowhead Chiefs.

Returning players to watch: Leading scorer Jaycee Magwood was the only rookie player in the top ten of the Canada West Conference, with 11 goals and 15 assists. The Cougars have several other players to watch including Kylie Gavelin and Alexis Larson. Those three players were all invited to a Hockey Canada Development Camp, which will set the roster for the 2017 FISU Winter Universiade. The Regina Cougars had the most player from any Canada West team involved in development camp.

Season outlook: The Cougars will have several tough matchups over the course of the season. One of the most significant will be provincial rival University of Saskatchewan Huskies. The Huskies won three of the four meetings last season. Regina had an excellent record throughout the year against higher ranked teams. They also had a great deal of success of playing in overtime situations with multiple victories in overtime or double overtime.

University of Saskatchewan Huskies

Last season: The Huskies were a middle-of-the-pack team, finishing in fourth place in the Canada West standings with a record of 11-9-3-5. The 2015-2016 Huskies finished with 44 points, which put them behind the Regina Cougars by three points. That three-point difference is equivalent to the difference in points between the top three teams. The Huskies seemed to be a step behind.

Key departures: The Huskies are losing their top two scoring players from last season in Julia Flinton and Marley Ervine. They are also losing Brooke Mutch, Hannah McGillivray and Paige Anakaer. The Huskies are also facing a coaching change, as Steve Kook takes a “professional leave of absence.” Kook will be replaced by Robin Ulrich, who is an assistant coach who had also played for the Huskies.

Incoming players to watch: The Huskies will have more first-year forwards than any other position, with Kayla Kirwan, Bailee Bourassa, Emily Upgang, Danielle Nogier and Jasey Rae Book. However, that’s not a bad thing as the exceptional rookie seasons of Magwood and Pozinkoff show.

Returning players to watch: If the Huskies are to be competitive, they will rely heavily on their top returning scorer Kaitlin Willoughby, who had 10 goals and 10 assists for 20 points in 26 games played.  Goaltender Cassidy Hendricks had only the seventh-best save percentage in the conference last year, and she’ll need to provide a strong performance between the pipes for the Huskies this season.

Season outlook: Much like the Regina Cougars, the Huskies’ major matchup is their interprovincial rivals. The Huskies won three of four match ups with the Cougars last year. However, the Cougars will be a good measuring stick, as Regina finished just ahead of the Huskies last year.

University of Manitoba Bisons

Last season: The University of Manitoba Bisons finished the season in fifth place with a record of 13-13-0-2. The Bisons had a strong start to the year and were tied with the Pandas for first place at the end of the first half of the season. However, a rocky second half of the season saw the team slip to fifth. The Bisons had showed incredible grit last season as it they played to 5OT against the University of Saskatchewan Huskies to advance to the semifinals of the Canada West Playoffs.

Key departures: The Bisons are designed to be a contender with an excellent balance of players in various stages of eligibility. The Bisons only lost two players at the end of last season in Lindsay Blight and Kayleigh Wiens, meaning that they return most of the team which made it to the 2015-2016 Canada West finals.

Incoming players to watch: With only two players lost due to eligibility the Bisons have one of the smallest incoming classes of first years. Mekaela Fisher and Sheridan Oswald are coming from the Central Plains Capitals and Jenai Buchanan and Megan Neduzak from the Pembina Valley Hawks. Each of these players will have an effect on the composition of the Bisons. Oswald in particular will be interesting to watch according to Head Coach Rempel as “[she] had a very impressive showing at the recent U-18 Female National Championships in Hunstville, ON finishing tied for the tournament lead in scoring and in the process leading Team Manitoba to a silver medal.”

Returning players to watch: Top scorer Alanna Sharman had 10 goals and 12 assists for 22 points in 28 games. Erica Reider has also been a powerful offensive force. The Bisons’ goalie Rachel Dyck will definitely be a player to watch. She only ranked eighth in the Canada West save percentage rankings with .911, but will have to have a big year if the Bisons wish to improve their record.

Season outlook: The Bisons are currently playing their preseason in Finland and Sweden. The Bisons four victories in Europe speak to the depth and strength of their program.

The University of Alberta Pandas will be a tough test for the Bisons. These two teams have met in the CIS Playoffs for the last two years and have split those series. The UBC Thunderbirds will also be a good test, as they beat the Bisons in the Canada West championship last season.

University of Calgary Dinos

Last season: With a 9-12-3-4 record, the University of Calgary Dinos finished in sixth place in the Canada West Conference. However, most of the Dinos’ nine wins came in the second half of the season.

Key departures: The Dinos relied heavily on the Canada West MVP Iya Gavrilova, who graduated last year and has moved on to the CWHL. Gavrilova was one of three graduates for the Dinos program and the top scorer for the entire Canada West. Also graduating from the program were Stephanie Zvonkovic, who scored a timely goal to help the Dinos make the playoffs, and Bronwyn Stevens.

Incoming players to watch: The Dinos welcome seven incoming players this year, drawing from across Alberta and British Colombia. This is the second class of recruits which head coach Danielle Goyette has classified as large. Goyette is confident in her ability to work with a large number of incoming first-years. “We know what to expect as coaches and a team,” Goyette said. “Knowing what our first-year players achieved last year and how much they developed as players, we're confident that the new recruits will be able to step up and have an impact on the team this year as well."

The Dinos welcome Audrey Buston and Jessica Squires from the Calgary Fire, Merissa Dawson from the Kootenay Wild BC, Sage Desjardins and Kelsey Roberts from the Northern Capitals, Rachel Paul from the Peace Country Storm and Tori Stebnitz from the Balmoral Hall Blazers. The Dinos will have enough new faces to be a wildly unpredictable team this year. But with Goyette behind the bench, the Dinos are always a team to be taken seriously.

Returning players to watch: With Gavrilova graduating, many eyes are going to be on the second highest scorer in Canada West—Sasha Vafina, who also plays for Calgary. Vafina recorded 14 goals and 21 assists for 35 points. The Dinos will also be relying on Kelsie Lang, who accumulated a respectable 11 points while playing defense. Finally, another key piece will be Hayley Dowling. Dowling had a respectable .915 save percentage last season, but for the Dinos to succeed strong goaltending will have to be paired with the ability to keep the puck out of the net. The Dinos defensive game was shaky for much of last season.

Season outlook: The Dinos have two strong provincial rivals. When the Dinos and the University of Alberta Pandas play, there are connotations relating to the Edmonton and Calgary rivalry which spills over to most sports teams competing against each other. The Dinos and the Pandas will play home-and-home series, meaning that fans can see the development of the team throughout the season. The other team that the Dinos have a strong rivalry with is the Mount Royal Cougars, who also play in Calgary. The Dinos need a strong start to the season, and matchups against teams like Mount Royal are an excellent measure to see if they’ve achieved it.

University of Lethbridge Pronghorns

Last season: The University of Lethbridge Pronghorns opened last season strong with two wins against the University of Alberta Pandas. Unfortunately, the Pronghorns were unable to sustain that effort and ended up in seventh place in the Canada West Conference, missing the playoffs. Their 9-14-4-1 season was just one point behind the sixth place Dinos, but enough to ensure that they didn’t see any playoff action.

Key departures: The Pronghorns lost their top three scoring players at the end of last year in Kristen Reeves, Jocelyn Sabourin and Lauren Fredrich Their departures will leave a huge hole in offensive production for the Pronghorns.

Incoming players to watch: The Pronghorns hope that newcomers like Maddison Toppe can help change the team’s fortunes.

“Maddison is a tall, strong centreman who can find the back of the net," commented head coach Michelle Janus. "Her skating abilities combined with strong puck skills allow her to create scoring opportunities in open ice and small space." Toppe comes from the Sherwood Park Fury and is joined by Isabel Johnson of the Calgary Fire, Michaela Reay of the St. Francis X-Treme, Olivia Alexander of the Pacific Steelers, Rose Noonan from the Banff Academy and Rayah DeCorby from the Saskatoon Stars.

Returning players: The top remaining scorer for the Pronghorns was Sarah Spence, who recorded 5 goals and 8 assists for 13 points. She will be returning in the last year of her eligibility and should step into a leadership role while also producing points for her team. The players that everyone will be watching on the Pronghorns will include Alicia Anderson. Anderson posted the third-best save percentage in Canada West last season at .927. If she can have another productive season, it will certainly help stabilize her team. Janae Culp will also be a player to watch. She’s in her final year of eligibility and will be looking to do great things in her last season.

Season outlook: There are no easy matchups for a team which didn’t make the playoffs. Just about every matchup promises to be tough for the Pronghorns. Most of the teams they played against last year were able to perform quite well against them. The Pronghorns need to work to have a better season.

Mount Royal University

Last season: The Mount Royal Cougars, the newest team in Canada West, joining in the 2012-2013 season, finished last season with an 8-14-3-3 record. The Cougars were able to pick up more victories early in the season than they managed late in the season.

Key departures: The Cougars have several faces not returning to their roster this year, including Moeko Fujimoto, who represented Japan in international competition this summer. “Although Fujimoto sat out the entire 2015-16 season as a redshirt for the Cougars, she has represented her country on the ice in many big events including the 2014 Winter Olympics, and two other installments of the IIHF Women's World Championships.”

Janessa Jenkins, Jocelyn Froehlich and Jess Ross all finished their time with the program last year. Froehlich is a notable loss because she led the team in assists.

Incoming players to watch: The Cougars will be looking for immediate impact from their first-years as they try to improve on last season’s results. Joining the team are Cassidy Trotter and Nicolette Seper from the Rocky Mountain Raiders, Tianna Ko and Zoe DeBeauville from the Calgary Fire, Victoria Byer from the Prince George Cougars and Anna Purschke from the Sherwood Park Fury.

Returning players: Much of the offensive responsibility will fall to Sarah Weninger, who returns as the leading scorer for the Cougars, scoring 11 goals and 5 assists for 16 points in 28 games last season.

Rachel Piitz is another player to watch, as she was second in scoring for the Cougars last year. Channia Alexander was a defensive force for the Cougars who was also able to put up nine points for a rank of fifth in team scoring. As it was her rookie season, it will be interesting to see what she manages with more experience.

Season outlook: As the newest program in the Canada West Conference, the Cougars are still struggling to find a place among their more experienced rivals. The Cougars need to be able to regularly win against the other struggling teams and not just manage the occasional upset against teams far above them. The University of Calgary Dinos will be an important match up for the Cougars as both teams are located in Calgary and both were in the bottom third of the Canada West Conference.