As a third-round NHL draft pick of the Canadiens in 2017, Victoria Royals defenceman Scott Walford had every expectation of playing in Montreal. He eventually did, but at McGill University. It underscores that not everybody makes it to the big time, and also that U Sports might be the best-kept secret and most underrated hockey league in Canada.
Almost all the players in U Sports, such as Walford, are from the major-junior Canadian Hockey League from either the Western Hockey League, Ontario Hockey League or Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Only now they are in their 20s and bigger, stronger and faster than in junior.
That is why Hockey Canada schedules an annual set of games against the U Sports all-stars during the world junior championship selection camp. The university stars, most of whom were journeymen CHL players, have more than held their own at 6-8-1 since 2015 against the starry Canadian junior team campers, most of whom are headed to NHL careers. That includes the U Sports team going 2-1 against the Canadian junior team at the Q Centre in the selection camp ahead of Victoria co-hosting the 2019 world junior championship.
Matthew Wood of Nanaimo, the former Victoria Grizzlies forward and BCHL scoring champion now from NCAA UConn and selected 15th overall by the Nashville Predators in the first round of the 2023 NHL draft, is among the 30 players in the Canadian selection camp beginning today in Oakville, Ont., for the 2024 world junior championship tournament that opens Boxing Day in Gothenburg, Sweden. Two former Victoria Royals players, blueliner Walford and forward Eric Florchuk, have been named to the U Sports team that will play Wood and the other Canadian team hopefuls during camp.
“It is such a great opportunity for our student-athletes, but it does come with an enormous responsibility to challenge our Canadian national junior team hopefuls in their training camp,” said U Sports team head coach, Brett Gibson, in a statement.
“Our staff have done our due diligence in scouting U Sports athletes to bring together what we feel is a team that will represent our brand of hockey best.”
That includes Walford and Florchuk, both of whom came into their WHL careers in Victoria with great promise. The WHL offers one year of paid post-secondary education at a Canadian institution for every season played in the WHL if the dream of making it to the NHL doesn’t work out. It doesn’t for most, of course, and the WHL education plan is a fall-back, as it was for Walford and Florchuk and numerous other former Royals. Graduating WHL players are given 18 months to try pro hockey in the AHL, ECHL or Europe before claiming the education benefit, but it does expire if not used by then. That’s why it’s probably better to try pro hockey after U Sports.
Major-junior hockey in the 1970s and 1980s often meant sacrificing high school and university in order chase the pro dream. It became such a concern that the leagues were forced to act. The WHL established its scholarship program in 1993-94.
“The WHL scholarship is a credit to our ownership,” WHL commissioner Ron Robison told the Times Colonist last month while attending a Royals game.
“Over 30 years, with more than 7,500 players having gone through it and over $30-million invested, our ownership deserve a tremendous amount of credit for providing that Canadian scholarship program.”
Walford patrolled the Royals blueline for four seasons from 2015-16 to 2018-19 before his final WHL season in Saskatoon. The 24-year-old is in his third season at McGill and won gold with Canada this year in the 2023 World University Games in Lake Placid, along with former Royals forward Jared Dmytriw from the University of Saskatchewan Huskies.
The six-foot-two Florchuk was Victoria’s first-round pick in the 2015 WHL prospects draft, selected 13th overall, and played two seasons for the Royals before being traded to Saskatoon and concluding his WHL career with the Vancouver Giants. An elegant skater, he was selected by the Washington Capitals in the seventh round of the 2018 NHL draft, and the 23-year-old is now in his third year with the University of Alberta Golden Bears with 23 points in 18 games this season.