Monday, 21 March 2016

March's madness hits hockey Huskies

Despite "The Call," Canada West champs had a great season

Captain Kendall McFaull and goalie Jordon Cooke celebrate a win.
    For short time, “The Call” will be the dominant memory the University of Saskatchewan Huskies men’s hockey team and their supporters take away from the 2016 University Cup.
    “The Call” of course refers to the checking from behind penalty assessed to Huskies standout forward Levi Cable at the 16:27 mark of the third overtime period of a University Cup semifinal clash against the St. Francis Xavier University X-Men. On the ensuing power play, X-Men forward Michael Clarke laser beamed home the winning goal from the slot to the top corner on Huskies star goaltender Jordon Cooke with 2:25 to play in the third extra frame cementing a 2-1 result in favour of St. Francis Xavier.
    In that instant, the Huskies were knocked into Sunday’s bronze medal contest at the Canadian Interuniversity Sport national championship tournament held in Halifax, N.S. U of S took a 2-1 lead in that contest against the St. Mary’s University Huskies before fatigue really set in to allow St. Mary’s to skate away with a 5-2 victory. The green and white Huskies were forced to return home to Saskatoon with a fourth place finish.
    Sunday’s result was overshadowed by the events that led to Saturday’s heartbreaker.
    Cable was called for hitting from behind on a play that was a borderline small shove in the back at best. The infraction happened near the boards, which could have made it look at other angles worse than it was. During the three overtime periods, the officials let a lot of other things go that were visibly more serious infractions of the rules.
Levi Cable was given a weak OT penalty in Saturday's CIS semifinal match.
    The call on Cable was soft compared to those other infractions, and with both teams showing signs of fatigue, it gave the X-Men an edge at a critical moment to win the game. When the Huskies lost, it felt like they got cheated.
    Locally in the immediate aftermath in Saskatoon, the social media lines blew up with Huskies supporters showing their displeasure with the officials. If some of the supporters were team members of staff, they would be looking at getting sizable fines comparable to those level against former WHL Regina Pats general manager Brent Parker, when he used to voice his critiques of officials.
    The Huskies players, coaches and support staff will no doubt have to each deal with their own emotions regarding how the tourney played out before moving on.
    U of S was making its 17th appearance at the University Cup, but this marked the first time the Huskies played in the event under an elite-eight single elimination format. This was the second year the University Cup was played under that structure, which helps produce “March Madness” style drama.
    The Huskies felt the lowest of lows in the semifinal, but for a time, they seemed destined to experience only highs.
Parker Thomas was an OT hero for the Huskies at University Cup.
    They finished first in the Canada West conference with a 22-6 record and won all four of their games in the Canada West playoffs to capture a 17th conference title according to information supplied by Michael P.J. Kennedy, who wrote two editions of a the history book on the Huskies men’s and women’s hockey teams.
    Powering the run of the Huskies men’s hockey team was an emotional push to honour the memory of alumni Cody Smuk, who passed away of cancer in late June of 2015. Smuk was a hard-working, team first, glue guy who was endearing to the Huskies and the community of Saskatoon.
    His number was retired before a home game on Oct. 24, 2015. All season, the Huskies warmed up at home all wearing Smuk’s #24 jersey, and they continued that tradition at University Cup. When they won the Canada West title at the ancient Rutherford Rink on March 5, they brought out Smuk’s parents, father Marty and mother Darla, and his fiancée Stephanie Vause to be part of the on-ice team picture.
    In their first game at the University Cup, the Huskies experienced another big high. Huskies forward Parker Thomas showed a beauty set of hands popping home the winning goal at the 6:11 mark of a fourth overtime period to allow U of S to down the Carleton University Ravens 3-2 back on Thursday. The match was longest game in the history of the University Cup lasting 116 minutes and 11 seconds.
    After one game, the Huskies had to be thinking the event’s single elimination format was a sweet deal.
The Huskies lost Michael Sofillas due to injury.
    The experience of all those cumulative highs made Saturday’s outcome that much tougher to digest. Anyone involved with the Huskies had to think what happened in the loss to the X-Men wasn’t real.
There were also other things that went wrong in the semifinal loss. In the first period, the Huskies lost sophomore forward Michael Sofillas to a preventable injury.
    Sofillas was skating through the centre ice zone in front of the penalty box area, when a roughing infraction to X-Men forward Brad Cuzner was about to expire. Cuzner got out of the box and nailed Sofillas, who was lost for the rest of the tournament.
    Off-ice officials should have had player safety in mind and waited a couple of seconds for Sofillas to skate by. Instead, the U of S forward was blindside by someone who appeared to emerge out of a wall. Sofillas couldn’t defend himself, because he had no chance to see Cuzner was coming.
    The Huskies also saw their 1-0 lead disappear in the second period, when Cuzner burned them with a short-handed breakaway goal created by a nice chip pass by linemate Steven Kuhn. Those little things ultimately make the difference in a sudden death game.
    The third team, the officials, did have their struggles on Saturday, and if you are honest, fatigue started to catch up with them the longer overtime went. They are human too.
    In the third overtime period, that fatigue started to show up in a handful of botched off-side calls, which should have been simple to make. Fatigue likely played a factor in how the officials saw the infraction they gave to Cable.
    Bad calls are always going to be part of sports. Bad calls are also going to happen in critical moments of playoff games.
    These days, officials do more off-ice work than they ever have before with video, and the three-overtime semifinal contest involving the U of S was likely a big learning experience for them.
The Canada West title win will highlight the 2015-16 Huskies season.
    In the end, the Huskies have to live with what happened at the University Cup. Over time, the players, coaches, support staff and supporters will find ways to deal emotionally with the University Cup outcome.
    The X-Men didn’t have a championship ending to their University Cup experience either falling 3-1 in the final to the University of New Brunswick Varsity Reds.
    While the University Cup didn’t return to Saskatoon for the first time since 1983, the Huskies had one of their most memorable years in 2015-16. The biggest memories were created by the day-to-day journey of the season and the celebration of a Canada West title win at home over their forever rivals the University of Alberta Golden Bears.
    It was a season that started without any lofty expectations and truly did honour Smuk’s memory. A bad call in a sudden death semifinal game will ultimately not erase the good that was accomplished.

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