October 8, 2013

Canadian college's U.S. trek is harrowing, historic

By Joshua Kummins

Matthews Arena was a welcome sight for the Dalhousie Tigers men’s hockey team as they arrived at Northeastern for Saturday’s exhibition game with little time to spare after a long, two-leg bus trip from Halifax, Nova Scotia. (Photo/Joshua Kummins)

BOSTON – The start of every new college hockey season brings in a great deal of excitement to New England, but it is not just the region’s local teams that get to experience the culture of the sport in this rich area for the first time when the calendar flips to October.

Every year, a slew of Canadian colleges are brought into play some of the area’s prominent programs, including a large number of Hockey East teams.

Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) teams did not fare very well on the weekend, finishing without a victory against Hockey East. The 2012 Canadian national champion McGill University Redmen were able to salvage two ties from their trip, including a 3-3 score with defending HEA league winner UMass Lowell at the Tsongas Center.

The Dalhousie University Tigers, of Halifax, Nova Scotia, had one of the most sought-after experiences of any hockey player in the area as they got the chance to open a busy weekend of action with a skate on the historic ice of Northeastern University’s Matthews Arena.

“It was the first time (in the building and the area) for a lot of us,” second-year head coach Chris Donnelly said. “Goodness, what a great barn. You can smell the hockey when you walk in. It’s awesome.”

The Tigers entered the contest extremely shorthanded, dressing just nine forwards and seven defensemen in what turned out to be a 5-0 loss to the Huskies, less than 24 hours after finishing their seventh game of the season at Ottawa’s Carleton University on Friday.

Following the 7-3 loss at Canada’s “Capital University,” the Tigers boarded their charter to Boston, but as junior goaltender Wendell Vye explained, what came next was certainly unexpected.

“We had no idea what was going on,” the Moncton, New Brunswick, native said after the radiator on the team bus burst about five hours into the journey from Ottawa. “The bus just started sputtering, we pulled over on the side of the road. And the next thing you know, we’re stuck on the side for a good hour and a half to switch buses.”

The trip to Boston, according to veteran defenseman Brett Plouffe, took about eight hours just itself after the long trek to Canada’s capital city for Friday’s game. With the Tigers’ season also just beginning, the opportunity was used as a good team bonding time, but did take out some of the team’s energy entering the game. 

“It’s a great experience for all our guys, even under the circumstances,” Vye, a native of Moncton, New Brunswick, said. “We came out here as well as we could with the guys that we had and we’re just enjoying the experience.”

With all the delays, the Tigers did not get into the arena until about 90 minutes before the scheduled 7:30 p.m. puck drop, but as soon as the players came up the six stairs from the visitors’ locker room into the first rows of Section 21, the building’s beauty and history practically hit them in the face.

“That’s one thing I loved. I loved the atmosphere,” Vye said. “Not only for the home team, did it give them an extra boost. But also for us. It was great, even if they were chirping us a certain way. It still gave us that push to keep going, so it was a great experience.”

Vye, who played for his hometown Moncton Wildcats of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League before starting at “DalU,” has had a bit of experience playing in the area because of the Wildcats’ trips to face the now-defunct Lewiston MAINEiacs, which were in existence from 2003-11.

When comparing the fans of Boston to those New Englanders in the northern woods of the Pine Tree State, Vye saw many similarities.

“When you cross the border ... hockey is the same thing. The fans here (in the U.S.) are just that much more vocal. Obviously, Lewiston was quite a long trip for us from Moncton, but it was good. I loved going there.”

After finishing just 8-17-3 in the 2012-13 season, the Tigers used the game as a key experience for team development that will surely help with the regular season beginning in about 10 days.

“We’re trying to elevate our program,” Donnelly said. “And you only do that by playing the best teams you can find. It was great for (Northeastern coach) Jim (Madigan) to have us in here. … We have probably 13 guys in their first two years, so all this experience is going to be beneficial for our program.

“The speed Northeastern had, the way they attacked, the way they kept their feet moving in the offensive zone - those are some of the things we’re trying on a regular basis with our team.”

After the bus malfunction and a long night of traveling across the Canadian border, there was no time for sightseeing in the city as the team headed four hours north to Maine for a game on Sunday afternoon before returning home.

“It’s about pushing the limits of our players and having them compete under extreme conditions,” Donnelly said. “That has certainly occurred here in this road trip.”

Twitter: @JoshuaKummins

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