Men's hockey finds stability after tumultuous start

Things have not gone to plan this season for the UBC Thunderbirds men’s hockey team. Just six months after a University Cup appearance following a historic regular season, the team sits fifth in Canada West standings. Though the team’s 8–6–2 record is nothing to laugh at, the hardest half of the season still remains.

After last season’s second place finish and franchise record 0.725 winning percentage, expectations were high. The team lost several key players to graduation in the spring such as 2022 U Sports goaltender of the year Rylan Toth, all-star centre Tyler Sandhu and Abbotsford native Matt Revel, all of whom now play professional hockey in Europe.

However, the addition of several highly-touted recruits saw them ranked third in the 2022—23 coaches preseason poll. 2022 BCHL champion goaltender Kaeden Lane, 2018 Hlinka Gretzky cup gold medalist Sasha Mutala and 2022 WHL champion Joshua Williams were just a few of the new rookies that had the team aiming for another dominant season.

“We have a lot of young guys [this year],” said second-year UBC winger Tian Rask. “Last year we had a group that would do anything to win, and we’re trying to instil that in the [new] guys.”

So far this season, the T-Birds have shown their age in the form of immaturity and a lack of chemistry on the ice. Earlier this year, the team’s back end failed to make simple passes, and their goaltenders could not be relied on to make a save. Though they have shone in moments, the lowest point of the season came two weeks ago in a 9–1 loss to the University of Alberta Golden Bears. Coming into last weekend’s home series against the Mount Royal University Cougars, the loss was fresh on the minds of the players, and motivated a strong two game split.

“We came in with the mindset that we were going to stray from the way we played [in that game] and build [off of] it,” said Rask.

For T-Birds head coach Sven Butenschön, his team’s wakeup call was not the loss to Alberta, but the early November series against the University of Calgary Dinos in which UBC lost both games by a combined score of 9–3.

“We’ve had a reset [since being] swept by [Calgary],” said Butenschön. “[We’ve focused] more on [our] play away from the puck, solidifying the [defensive] zone, and practice intensity.”

Against the second place Cougars this weekend, UBC fought back to win the first game 4–3, with their comeback coming up short the following afternoon for a 3–2 loss. Despite going down early in both games, the T-Birds found consistency within the dressing room, and it transitioned onto the ice.

“Our performance was a very good display of a strong team mentality and spirit,” said Butenschön, beaming. “We really [rallied] and pulled for each other. Moving forward, if we can play like that, we’ll be okay.”

With 12 games left in the season, the T-Birds have plenty of time to further mature and develop their game before the playoffs. And after a tumultuous start, the team’s competitive mindset and positivity will be their most important asset.

“We’re on the road to the [top],” said Rask. “At the end of the year, I think we’ll have a team that can make a run for a championship.”