Former Victoria Royals goaltender Griffen Outhouse of the University of New Brunswick Red Sticks faces former Royals defenceman Brad Herauf of the Concordia Stingers today in Charlottetown to open the U Sports University Cup men’s national championship tournament in the least-appreciated brand of high-level hockey in the country.
Victoria-products and former WHL defencemen Sean Strange (Kamloops Blazers) and Brendan De Jong (Portland Winterhawks), along with former hometown BCHL Victoria Grizzlies forward Marty Westhaver of the top-ranked University Calgary Dinos open Friday against the host and No. 8 University of Prince Edward Island Panthers
Tyler Preziuso from Victoria, who played in the WHL with the Vancouver Giants, and former Royals forward Eric Florchuk are on the Canada West runner-up and No. 5 University of Alberta Golden Bears as they look to open Friday against the No. 4 University of Windsor Lancers.
“It’s a very high level of hockey,” said Royals GM and head coach Dan Price, who was assistant coach for two seasons with the University of Toronto Varsity Blues.
“Everyone is in their 20s. You are not playing against 16-year-olds anymore.”
It gives late developers another chance if they were passed over in the NHL draft following their WHL careers.
“U Sports is heavily scouted. It’s become a great stepping stone to the pros and you see more and more players moving up from U Sports to the AHL, ECHL, Europe and NHL,” said Price.
Examples include former Royals forwards Tyler Soy, an NHL draft pick of the Anaheim Ducks, and Brandon Magee, who won a U Sports championship with the Alberta Golden Bears, who now play respectively for the Belfast Giants and Fife Flyers in the British pro league.
But if hockey still doesn’t work out after U Sports, at least you get an education out of it.
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 that offers one year of paid post-secondary education at a Canadian university or college for every season played in the WHL. According to the league, “a total of 342 WHL alumni players have been awarded WHL scholarships for the 2022-23 academic season at a combined cost of $2 million to the clubs and that over 7,500 WHL scholarships have been accessed over three decades at a combined cost to WHL clubs of $33 million.”
The University of Saskatchewan Huskies and UBC Thunderbirds lead post-secondary institutions this season with 28 WHL graduates each. That is followed by Mount Royal University with 25, Calgary Dinos with 22, the Golden Bears and University of Manitoba Bisons with 20 each and the MacEwan Griffins and University of Regina Cougars with 19 each.
Players are given 18 months immediately following graduation from the WHL to try their luck in the pro AHL, ECHL or Europe before forfeiting their U Sports scholarship. It appears better to play U Sports first and then try pro.
The Royals annually bring back former players, who are now in U Sports, to address the current players about that option. This season, former Royals defencemen Scott Walford and Mitchell Prowse addressed the current Royals. Prowse plays in U Sports with McGill. Walford, a 2017 third-round draft pick of the Montreal Canadiens, also plays for McGill and won gold with Canada this year in the 2023 World University Games in Lake Placid, New York, along with former Royals forward Jared Dmytriw from the University of Saskatchewan Huskies.
“Scott and Jared explained how to take advantage of the scholarships and what our current players need to know,” said Price.
“But the first question our [current Royals] players had was about the hockey.”
The answer: It’s very good.