It’s been a wild year for the University of Saskatchewan men’s hockey team, with more highs and lows than a Hollywood blockbuster. But when the dust settled on Mar. 5 at Rutherford Rink, the Huskies had swept their bitter rivals to claim the Canada West championship, their first since 2012.
In front of a sold out crowd at one of the oldest barns in the country, the green and white continued to do what made them successful all season long — they rolled four lines and outworked the opposition for a full 60 minutes. Entering the post-season with a 22–6 record and ranked number three in the country, the Dogs proved their might by going a perfect 4–0 in the conference playoffs. A feat that included a finals sweep of the two-time reigning Canadian Interuniversity Sport champions.
If that wasn’t impressive enough, over the four-game span the Huskies outscored their opponents 16–8 en route to their 16th CanWest title in program history. Finally getting the best of archrival Alberta was the icing on the cake, as they handed the Bears their first road playoff losses since 2000.
Goaltender Jordon Cooke has been the backbone to the Huskies’ success all season, leading the league in wins and save percentage. He was superb in the finals, stopping 54 of 56 shots in the series. Cooke was ecstatic following the team’s emotional victory.
“It’s unbelievable. To win it at home is unbelievable. This is actually the first championship I’ve ever won — it’s hard to come by words. It’s a great group of guys and it was a great effort. That’s a two-time national championship team and they know how to win, but we shut them down and didn’t give them much,” Cooke said.
A convincing 4–0 victory in game one of the best-of-three series set the table for what was sure to be an exciting conclusion to another chapter in the storied rivalry. With an almost never before seen energy in the building, the Huskies fully utilized their home ice advantage. The pivotal game sold out over 40 minutes prior to puck drop, and it was easily the biggest crowd of the season — maybe even one of the biggest in Rutherford’s history.
Game two didn’t start according to plan, as the visitors silenced the boisterous crowd and took the lead just 3:31 into the contest. However, the Huskies settled in after the tough start and began to play their style of hockey. They used their speed, their physical presence and their great depth to slowly wear down the Golden Bear defence.
Arguably the turning point in the game, Cooke made a clutch stop late in the second period when one of Alberta’s top players came in on a breakaway, looking to put the Bears up 2–0. He faked and then fired a quick shot, but Cooke was able to get just enough of it to deflect it wide, igniting a roar of approval from the home crowd.
Still trailing 1–0 after 40 minutes, but holding a 23–16 edge in the shot department, the Huskies appeared to be on the verge of a breakthrough. Controlling the majority of the play and generating plenty of scoring chances through the first two periods, the Dogs exuded a quiet confidence that was evident in their game.
Rookie forward Andrew Johnson was an offensive catalyst for the team all year and his line did their part again in game two. Johnson, along with Levi Cable and Kohl Bauml, came close to finding the back of the net on numerous occasions. Although not much was said during the second intermission, Johnson said the team knew what they had to do.
“There wasn’t any panic. We were calm and loose and we’ve done it before — that’s what was said in the room, why not do it again? We’ve found a way all year and we found a way to do it again tonight which was awesome,” Johnson said. “We have confidence in our group. It’s not a matter of if we’re going to do it, but it’s a matter of who. Everyone wants to be that guy. We’ve shown throughout the season that everyone is capable of stepping up and did again tonight, it’s guys from all over the board doing it.”
As time began ticking away in the third, a nervous energy slowly swept over the capacity crowd. But then, just over three minutes into the final frame, Jesse Ross snapped a shot that found the back of the net, evening the game at one. Just 15 seconds later, with the 1,066 in attendance still celebrating the equalizer, Logan McVeigh converted an odd-man rush to give the Huskies the lead for good — sending Rutherford into a frenzy.
It might not have been the biggest or prettiest goal of his hockey career, but it was certainly one McVeigh won’t forget anytime soon.
“It was nice to get that one, I had a few chances earlier in the game and in the series. To see that one go in at that time feels great, for sure,” McVeigh said. “This place has never been so loud, they filled it right as full as it could be. It feels great to win it at home, that’s why we worked so hard all season to get first place and home ice advantage.”
As the final seconds ticked down and the victory was assured, the crowd reached a fever pitch as the final buzzer rang and the ice was immediately littered with helmets, gloves and sticks of the victorious home side. As they were presented with the championship trophy and banner, you could see on each and every player’s face the emotions they felt and the sense of accomplishment and pride that accompanied being a part of such a special team and program.
Ross, who is in his fourth season with the Dogs, says this team is as close to family as any team he has ever played on before.
“We’re very tight. Tighter than we’ve been in the four years I’ve been here. Everyone wants to battle for each other and sticks up for each other all the way to the end. That’s what it takes to be a championship team. We’ve got a couple weeks left and one more to work our way towards,” Ross said.
Johnson added that this will go down as one of the most memorable events in his hockey career.
“I think it’s got to be up there — probably top two for sure. With the young group that we have and just how close everyone is, it feels special to win this with everyone,” he said.
Any great triumph isn’t complete without overcoming adversity and the Huskies have done just that. Back in June 2015, they lost their beloved teammate Cody Smuk to cancer and silently dedicated their 2015–16 season to him. The emotional win came full circle when the team invited Smuk’s family onto the ice for the celebratory team picture, as they all donned Smuk’s number 24 jersey.
As a poster hangs above the ice at Rutherford with Smuk’s face and the sentiment, “We all play the Cody Smuk way,” the squad made sure they honoured their fallen teammate to the best of their abilities.
Ross was instrumental in the game two victory, picking up a key goal early in the third period to kickstart the Huskies’ comeback, while also adding an assist. He, along with many others, felt plenty of emotions when he saw Smuk’s family joining them on the ice.
“It made me cry a little. I don’t cry often but it was a very moving and emotional moment. Just to see the happiness on their faces and knowing Cody was a part of that win and our team — it was an unbelievable feeling, I’m at a loss for words,” Ross said. “We all came together, we wanted to get it for Smuker. And we did it and it feels amazing.”
“He’s been with us every step of the way. We may not have said it and come out in public about it, but he’s been with us every step. We want to play like him and this whole year was for him, it’s unbelievable to actually get it done and win for him,” Cooke added.
While this achievement certainly means this season was a success, the Dogs are hungry for more. They have qualified for the CIS Championships, which take place from Mar. 17–19 in Halifax, N.S. Going up against seven other top teams in the country will be a tough test, but three wins is all that separates the Huskies from being crowned national champions — a feat done only once before by the program, all the way back in 1983.
Head coach Dave Adolph is looking forward to competing against some of the top schools in the CIS, but he’s secretly hoping for a Can-West rematch.
“It’s eight teams going in a one-and-done, it’s going to be a crapshoot. It’s a real quirky draw — I think this [victory] gives us a lot better chance because we won’t have to run into UNB like we have six or seven times in my time here,” Adolph said. “I like our chances, I wouldn’t be surprised, with a bounce or two, it’s us and Alberta in the final. That’s what I’d like — two quality programs going at it and keeping it out west.”
Johnson was certain the team would be celebrating their victory, but surely speaks for everyone on the team when he says they’ll be prepared come Mar. 17. With a week off before they head out east, the team will have a chance for some final preparations.
“We’re going to enjoy this and then it’s back to work next week. If you look at the opportunity that we have playing out there and the chance for a national championship, that opportunity doesn’t come around every day — we’re going to be ready,” he said.
As two of the Dogs will play their final games in the green and white at the University Cup, the squad will look to make them and Smuk proud. Regardless of how they finish at nationals, this season will be one to remember for not only the players and coaches, but also for the fans and the program as a whole.
With just a few games left in the 2015–16 season, the story has been almost entirely written. With the final chapter waiting to unfold, only one thing can complete the storybook ride: bringing a national championship back to the U of S.
Photo Gallery 1 & 2: Caitlin Taylor / Photo Editor
Photos: Nicole Campbell
Team Photo: Supplied / Josh Schaefer