Saturday night is Hockey Night in Whistler this week, with the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds taking on the University of Calgary Dinos at Meadow Park arena.
A year ago, UBC battled conference rivals at University of Alberta to a 1-1 tie before a sold-out arena, and were awarded a standing ovation for an outstanding hockey game.
The Blue and Gold look stronger than in many years this season, led by former Vancouver Giants captain Nick Marach and former coach Milan Dragicevic. In their season opener, a sold-out exhibition game against the Vancouver Canucks Prospects, T-birds goalie Robert Filc managed to stop 29 of just 32 allowed shots to lose a respectable 3-0.
Last weekend, the T-birds went 1-1-0 in the annual University of Alberta Brick Invitational, scoring 11 goals in two games. Third-year forward Derek Dinelle led the way with a hat trick and an assist in an 8-3 victory over the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology and had another goal in UBCs 4-3 overtime loss to Mount Royal. Dinelle won the Canada West Player of the Week award for his efforts.
The Calgary Dinos also went 1-1 in the tournament, beating SAIT 5-4 and losing to Mount Royal 7-6.
The two teams are playing their first game this Friday at UBC, before coming to Whistler.
Although its an exhibition game and looks like a good match-up on paper, UBC is not taking this series lightly.
"Calgary has a big team, theyre very physical and theyre very skilled. Theyve geared their team this year towards being fast and aggressive, and they were one of the better teams in the league last year, so we definitely have our hands full," says Dragicevic.
While UBC finished at the bottom of the Canada West Conference Mountain Division last season, things are looking up for the T-birds.
"The willingness of our guys to compete this year has to be a strength, and our goaltending has been second to none Filc has been our MVP for the past two years," says Dragicevic.
"We also have a strong supporting cast of forwards returning. Were emphasizing a lot of speed and better defence.
"We have to play a strong team if we want to compete."
While the good showing against the Canucks Prospects was encouraging, Dragicevic says its difficult to use that game as an accurate gauge of his teams abilities.
"There is a lot to play for in that game with the media being there and playing against some very high profile players. It kind of picks up the tempo for every individual on our team."
Back to back games with Calgary will give Dragicevic a better "evaluation tool" to see where players fit into the roster. He also believes a little rivalry will help to bring out the best in his team.
"Theres only seven teams in this league, so when youre playing against a team four or five times throughout the year, it kind of intensifies because every game is like a playoff game. Even in exhibition, guys are competing for jobs and line combinations are being figured out. Every game is a crucial game."
Marach could miss these games for UBC as a result of talks with teams in the American Hockey League this week.
Look for a strong goaltending performance from Filc and leadership from returning forwards Nils Anton and Dinelle to set the pace for the T-birds.
"Anton is our top scorer from last year, number 27. Hes always fun to watch when he has the puck," says Dragicevic. "Dinelle is a fan favourite, a hard-nosed, big winger who is very physical and doesnt skate by a check, so I think hes somebody the fans should take a look at."
Complete rosters for the game will be available on the program distributed on Saturday night.
The game is a fundraiser for the Whistler Minor Hockey Association and an inspiration for young players. With automatic ejections for fights and possible suspensions from the league, university calibre players are harder to intimidate and tend to focus more on skills and speed to win games.
The game starts at 6:45 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 21, and tickets are available at Meadow Park arena. The cost is $10 for adults, $5 for children and $20 for families.
Minor Hockey will also be conducting other fundraising activities during the evening, including a puck toss between periods and a 50-50 draw.
Last years exhibition was standing room only, so get there early.