A national title will be on the line when the country’s top men’s university hockey teams gather in Lethbridge March 14-17.
The University of Lethbridge Pronghorns are the host team for the 2019 Cavendish Farms U Sports Men’s Hockey Championship, which will be returning to Western Canada for the first time since 2014.
The eight-team tournament takes place at the Enmax Centre, featuring representatives from the three conferences that make up U Sports, the governing body for all university sports in the country. U Sports encompasses Canada West (the conference featuring the Pronghorns and all universities from B.C. to Manitoba), Ontario University Athletics (OUA, universities in Ontario and Quebec) and Atlantic University Sport (AUS, maritime universities).
The Pronghorns will be joined in the tournament by Canada West rivals the defending national champion University of Alberta Golden Bears and the University of Saskatchewan Huskies. The Golden Bears claimed the conference’s No. 1 seed on Sunday by edging the Huskies 1-0 in the deciding game of the best-of-three final. Saskatchewan made it difficult for the defending champs by taking Game 1 4-2, but Alberta rallied for a 3-0 victory in Game 2 to force the deciding game.
AUS will be represented by University of New Brunswick and the St. Francis Xavier X-Men, the two teams battling in the Atlantic final. OUA will send three teams, including the Guelph Gryphons and Queen’s University Gaels, who are battling in the Queens Cup final for Ontario supremacy.
The Western Mustangs and Carleton Ravens will play off for the bronze medal and the third OUA spot at the nationals.
Seeding for the championship tournament was to take place March 10.
UNB captured the national title in 2016 and 2017, while the Golden Bears claimed the 2015 championship.
The schedule for the U Sports hockey championship in Lethbridge includes quarterfinal games March 14 and 15, with two games each day — at 1 and 7 p.m. The Pronghorns will play opening day at 7 p.m. The quarterfinal winners will advance to the semifinals, scheduled for March 16 at 1 and 6 p.m. The bronze-medal game goes March 17 at 1 p.m. with the gold-medal game to follow at 6 p.m.
Eight-game passes are available via the Enmax Centre, priced at Adult: $160 (plus fees); Senior: $136 (plus fees); and Youth/Student: $100 (plus fees).
In addition to game action, the championship tournament will feature the Horns U-Cup Tailgate Party March 14 at 5 p.m., and Rogers Hometown Hockey March 16-17.
The host Pronghorns are coming off a season that saw them finish sixth in Canada West play, posting a 9-17-2 conference record. They pushed the Calgary Dinos to double overtime in Game 2 of their quarterfinal series before being eliminated 4-3.
The Horns are guided by head coach Murray Nystrom, who is completing his first season in Lethbridge but who has a wealth of university coaching experience. Nystrom spent 18 years as the head coach of the Brock Badgers in the OUA, turning around the program and taking the Badgers to the program’s first University Cup appearance in 2008. The 2008 CIS Coach of the Year compiled a record of 191-227-18-39 in his 18 years while making 14 appearances in the OUA playoffs. He was also named the OUA Coach of the Year twice, in 2004 and 2008.
On the ice, the Pronghorns were led offensively this season by fifth-year left wing Justin Valentino, who topped the squad with 27 points in 30 games, including nine goals to share the team lead with third-year right wing Torrin White.
Also sparking the Horns up front are centres Brooks Maxwell from Raymond and Russell Maxwell from Magrath, two of the team’s nine players with Western Hockey League experience. Brooks collected 18 points in 20 games while Russell chipped in with 15 points.
The veteran on defence is fourth-year blueliner Blake Orban from Calgary, while Garret Hughson, a third-year player who previously played in the Ontario Hockey League, was the Horns’ starting goaltender. He posted a 3.73 goals-against average in 27 games.