Fans were arriving for more than an hour before puck drop to enjoy the pre-game festivities inside the Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre. Some brought signs that ranged from creative (“Manito-Bad”) to expected (“Make a TikTok with me”) while others heckled Manitoba goaltender Riley Lamb with sheep noises during warmups.
And between the crowds at the beer gardens and lineups at the concessions, it was safe to say that most were in good spirits before the game started.
But despite all the madness, the T-Birds would prevail.
“It was like any other Winter Classic — very emotional, very intense, both teams going at it,” said UBC head coach Sven Butenschön after the game.
The rough stuff started right away. On the first shift of the game, UBC forward Maxwell James, who had previously missed time due to injury, fired up the crowd with a couple of big hits as the T-Birds were physical on the forecheck in the early going.
The scoring opened at the 16:08 mark of the first period. Skating down the left boards, rookie forward Quinn Benjafield glided past two Manitoba defenceman and reached around Lamb to give UBC the first goal of the game, bringing all 5,500 or so people to their feet.
Late in the second period, the T-Birds added to their lead. A cross-ice pass from UBC forward Tyler Sandhu found Austin Vetterl who rifled home a wrist shot from the opposite faceoff circle. Then at 18:40 in the period, Sandhu would score his first of the night, increasing the lead to three.
Early into the third period, things started to get interesting. UBC goalie Rylan Toth made 20 saves on the night, but Manitoba forward Ben Dalke beat him with a quick shot on the blocker side to put the Bisons on the board at 5:14 into the period.
The momentum was short-lived, as the UBC powerplay went to work after a Bisons penalty. With the five-on-four advantage, defenceman and team captain Jerret Smith one-timed a pass from Sandhu and the shot took a deflection off of James into the net.
Midway through the period, Manitoba replied on the powerplay. With a crowd of people in front, Toth was unable find a shot from defenceman Adam Henry that put the Bisons back within two.
With less than two minutes left in the game, a UBC penalty gave the Bisons a six-on-four advantage after they pulled their goalie.
Without a goalie in net, UBC forward Colton Kehler was able to give his team an insurance goal when he shot the puck into the net from centre-ice. A minute later, Sandhu would bury his second with another empty net goal to finish off what was a dominant offensive performance from the home side.
“We got some bounces today but you know you got to work hard for your bounces,” Butenschön said afterwards.
“We finished a lot of checks and I think their defence started hearing footsteps and turning pucks over and then we were able to capitalize.”
The game did not end quietly. With about five seconds left to play, Sandhu poked Lamb after the whistle was blown. It started a line brawl that involved multiple players wrestling on the ice while players and coaches from both teams were yelling from their benches.
“[Manitoba is a] hard, physical team and that’s how they play and that’s why they’ve had success this year,” said Butenschön when asked about the skirmishes at the end of the game.
“We were able to stand up for ourselves.”
And while their first win of the new year came in spectacular fashion, the team seemed subdued about the outcome.
Smith emphasized that they need to keep a mindset “of not being too high, not too low” and Butenschön also mentioned the need to keep “emotions in check” in order to build off the momentum from this weekend. UBC would go on to beat the Bisons 2–1 in double overtime the next day.
In the end, there was little doubt that the final result and the event were rewarding for the Thunderbird faithful, players and coaches alike.
“You know it’s Canada, you can tell how passionate everybody is [about hockey],” said Butenschön. “It was a great night.”
“It was awesome,” said Smith, who had two assists in the game. “I mean it was a lot of fun [for the players and] a lot of fun for the fans.
“I wish it could be like that every night."