To be the best, you have to beat the best.
That will be the mentality of every opponent stepping on the ice with the MacEwan University Griffins in 2017-18. When both the men’s and women’s MacEwan teams won their championships last season, it was just the fourth time that a single school swept the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference (ACAC). Though the two teams are in different stages of their development, their goals will be the same this season.
The MacEwan Griffins women’s team is coming off its second ACAC championship, and expectations are high heading into the 2017-18 season. With a core made up of mostly young players who are still developing, it’s reasonable to believe the team could be even better this season.
“I’d be pretty disappointed if we weren’t at least vying for a championship or making that championship round,” says Griffins head coach, Lindsay McAlpine. “In sport, it’s so unpredictable — a bounce doesn’t go your way — but I think our group and our coaching staff would be pretty disappointed if we didn’t have a shot at it.”
It’s difficult to talk about the team without mentioning Sandy Heim. The Swiss goaltender had a dreamlike rookie season for the Griffins last year. Heim led the conference in wins (14), save percentage (0.943), goals against average (1.45), and shutouts (five). Her 534 saves were 147 more than any other goalie.
Heim capped it all off by being named to the First All Star team and awarded ACAC Women’s Hockey Player of the Year.
“She has a lot of pressure to do equally as well or better this season, and Sandy is a player that is always up for a challenge like that,” says McAlpine. “I have no doubt that we’ll see a similar performance from her this season.”
Even without the brilliant goaltending, the Griffins would have been difficult to score against last season. The team gave up the fewest shots in the ACAC, and at 87.6 per cent, their penalty kill was ranked number one as well.
McAlpine expects more of the same this season.
“We were a pretty defensively sound team, and I’m going to chalk that up a little bit to my coaching style. I think we got to take care of our end first,” she says. “I wouldn’t say our offense is necessarily our strength, so we try to obviously play to our strength.”
The Griffins were in the middle of the pack in most offensive categories last season, but when a team is weak in one area, it must make up for it in others. An example of this would be having the second-worst power play percentage (19.8) in the conference but still managing to tie NAIT for the most power play goals scored because they also led the conference in penalties drawn.
However, there’s room for optimism in the offensive zone.
“Three rookies from last year who I think have gained quite a bit of confidence and played pretty big roles in their first season would be Jill MacWilliam, Chantal Ricker, and Jessi Rampton,” says McAlpine. “We will look to those three to play a pretty big impact role on the offensive side of the team.”
All three of those players progressed noticeably throughout last season. Ricker had two points in the first nine games and eight points in her final 15 games, while Rampton also had two points in her first 10 games but eight points in her final 13.
MacWilliam made the biggest leap forward last season. The speedy forward recorded just one point in her first eight games of the season but followed that up with 10 points in the next 12 games.
Morgan Casson is another player McAlpine anticipates relying on this season. The center used the playoffs as a coming-out party, leading the ACAC in playoff scoring, netting the championship-winning goal and being named the playoffs’ Most Valuable Player.
“Casson evolved into a far more offensive player than I would have imagined,” says McAlpine. “She’s going into her third year and I think it’s a pivotal year for her in terms of leadership as well.”
Even though the returning players should have some job security going into the season, there is a new group of rookies that will be looking to keep them accountable.
“We lost two players this season and we brought in five, so there’s a little more (intra)-team competition to push our girls, especially our vets, to another level,” says McAlpine.
The MacEwan Griffins men’s team broke a 12-year championship drought last season, and with many players returning, there’s hope they won’t have to wait as long for the next one.
Michael Ringrose replaces Bram Stephen as head coach after splitting seven seasons as associate coach, head coach, and general manager of the Spruce Grove Saints in the Alberta Junior Hockey League (AJHL). During that period, the Saints won six division titles and three AJHL championships.
Ringrose’s decision to fill the coaching vacancy was influenced by his time as a MacEwan student. He even played five games for the Griffins as a player.
“I was familiar with the pride and the passion in the MacEwan ranks and at the university, and working in that environment on a day-to-day basis is certainly exciting for me,” says Ringrose. “There are some pieces in place there that made it an attractive opportunity for any coach and I was fortunate enough to be the one that got the tap on the shoulder.”
Ringrose will have his work cut out for him. He’s taking over the reins of an experienced team that had a 21-7-1 record and impressive stats in all areas of the game last season.
The Griffins scored the second-most goals (123) in the ACAC, while also giving up the fewest (69). This success was largely due to their special teams being a major weapon. The team’s power play found the back of the net 20.5 per cent of the time and was ranked third in the conference. The penalty kill was even better. Not only did it have the highest success rate at 88.6 per cent, but its nine shorthanded goals led the ACAC.
“It’s hard to win a championship so lots of things need to fall into place for you to do that. You can control what you can control, but there’s never any guarantees.”
There shouldn’t be much of a departure from the style of play that made the Griffins successful last season, but Ringrose does have his own philosophy for how the game should be played.
“I believe in playing the game with pace, and something we’re certainly going to focus on is playing fast,” says Ringrose. “You need to have strong fundamental systems defensively and you can build offense off that.”
Ryan Benn will be suiting up for his fifth and final season with the Griffins. The team’s captain finished last season second in team scoring with 26 points in 27 regular season games, and adding another four points in five games in the playoffs.
When Benn scored his 100th career ACAC point last season, he became the Griffins all-time leading scorer. His 49 career goals are good enough to lead the club in that category too.
Benn currently sits at 107 points, tied for 30th in ACAC history, and has a realistic shot at cracking the top 10 by the end of the season. However, his coach is focusing more on his leadership.
“My expectation is that he continues to lead in the manner that he has done,” says Ringrose. “He understands now what it takes to be successful and to win a championship. That’s comforting for a coach stepping into this role in his first year.”
Benn won’t be the only veteran heavily relied on this season. After spending parts of five seasons in the Western Hockey League, 21-year-old Tyler Morrison joined the Griffins last season and led all defensemen in scoring with 25 points in 27 games.
“I’ve coached Tyler a little bit and I know him. He’s a humble, hard-working individual and I know he’s going to be committed to his development,” says Ringrose.
The Griffins will also need another big season from Brett Njaa if they want to repeat as champions. With 20 assists and 31 points in 27 games last season, Njaa led the Griffins in scoring and finished fourth in ACAC.
“He’s always been a dynamic, offensive threat, but watching game tape and talking to people throughout the ACAC that had the opportunity (to watch him), it sounds like he’s really taken his game to the next level,” says Ringrose. “He’s just scratching the surface.”
Though expectations are certainly high for the team, Ringrose has no interest in putting unnecessary pressure on his players.
“It’s hard to win a championship, so lots of things need to fall into place for you to do that. You can control what you can control, but there’s never any guarantees,” he says. “We will take things one game at a time, but we’re certainly not saddling ourselves with one-and-done expectations.”
Photography by Matthew Jacula & Nick Kuiper.