High expectations set for MRU’s hockey programs ahead of 2023-24 regular season
By Matthew DeMille, Sports Editor
Their claws are unsheathed.
And, their teeth are bared.
Beware Canada West opponents, Mount Royal University’s (MRU) hockey programs are licking their chops as they get ready for a six-month-long, regular season battle that started last Sept. 29.
Ahead of their season-opening games, the two programs have already filled their vision boards with ambitious yet distinguished expectations.
For the women’s program, their bar is already set to the max. As reigning U SPORTS National Champions— a legendary feat that was achieved last March in Montreal— the Cougars are expected to perform to the highest of their abilities for the duration of the season. That is, if they want a chance to defend their national title.
While a tough task in and of itself, fifth-year forward Mackenzie Loupelle believes this year’s team is more than capable of living up to expectations.
“Last year we were really good, [had] a lot of skilled girls but it’s looking like we’re going to be the same this year. All the rookies bring a lot of speed to the team, so I think we are going to be really fast and dominate in the league that way,” she said.
Loupelle isn’t wrong.
For the last handful of seasons, Mount Royal’s women’s program has made a frequently visited den in the top few spots of the Canada West standings. Most recently, snatching up a third-place finish at the end of the 2022-23 regular season.
The pattern continues as they head into their latest season. In the annual pre-season poll conducted by Canada West coaches, the Cougars were ranked the second-best club in the division, only falling behind back-to-back Canada West champions, the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds.
While being U SPORTS National Champions is a title the team holds with the utmost of pride, their trophy case is missing one piece that will tie the whole cabinet together.
A Canada West title.
“Obviously [we’re] aiming for Nationals [Championships] again, but we don’t have a Canada West title, so that would be pretty cool,” Loupelle said.
The Cougars are not feeding into the pre-season predictions, however. Instead, the women’s program plans on taking their season one stride at a time.
“Obviously we just got to take it day-by-day and focus on the process rather than the end goal,” Loupelle said.
“As a collective, we all have a bunch of smart hockey players and I think that’s always a skill— just being able to read the ice well and know our structure.”
Mount Royal’s men’s program also shares the same level of intensity and ambition as their women counterparts.
While the men’s team took an early fall in last year’s Canada West playoffs— a quarter final exit at the hands of the University of Saskatchewan— there was lots to like about their regular season performance. The team recorded a program high in wins, with 19, and also finished fourth in the Canada West season standings.
But, in the eyes of the men’s team captain, Connor Blake, there is always room to grow.
“Our standards are still really high. Last year was disappointing for the group because we had a great group and we finished with a new program record in wins. This year, it’s kind of more of the same. We want to make sure that we are the hardest working team, obviously that’s a cliché, but our practices and just trusting our process, then the outcomes will kind of take care of themselves,” said Blake.
With a younger and quicker roster this time around, Blake also feels that his team may pose a sneaky challenge for their Canada West rivals.
“We are a really fast team. We might not be the biggest but that’s not stopping us from working really hard in the tough areas. Grinding along the walls, getting to the net, but we just want to play with a high pace this year and just out work our opponents,” said Blake.
“We have a great bunch of guys that have bought in and so, again, it’s just sticking to our process and controlling what we can control and not worrying about anything else.”
In the 2023-24 pre-season coaching poll, Blake and his MRU teammates were ranked fifth out of the nine Canada West participants.
On a more personal level, this season will be a special one for both Loupelle and Blake, as the two fifth-year veterans are entering their final year in their academic programs. Meaning, with graduation on the horizon, this season marks the last time either of them will don their Cougars uniforms.
While still sharing the same collective goals as their teammates, the two soon-to-be graduates also plan on making the most of their final year at MRU— which includes enjoying even the smallest aspects of their playing and academic life.
“My biggest thing has just been being present and taking it all in and enjoying it, because I’ve played hockey a majority of my life so it’s kind of scary that this is the last season. But, at the same time, just take in every second of it— including the 6:30 a.m. practices,” joked Loupelle.
A similar message was uttered by Blake.
“On the personal level, just enjoying every moment knowing that it is going to be my last … I kind of want to end on a good note.”
That, and, leaving a lasting impact on his younger teammates and the next wave of up-and-coming Cougars athletes.
“Trying to lead by example as best I can so that in the future years for our younger guys… they can help out others when they come into the program.”
MRU’s hockey programs will be back in action on Friday, Oct. 6, when they take on the University of Alberta.