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Turtle hunting season is about to open at Rogers Place.
But prior to the NHL’s Battle of Alberta featuring the much hyped return of Zack Kassian to the Edmonton Oilers lineup Wednesday, just in time for a visit from Matthew Tkachuk and the Calgary Flames, another edition of the provincial rivalry is taking take place in the city.
Just don’t expect to see any of the same fist-fuelled fireworks carry over to the ice at Clare Drake Arena on Friday (7 p.m.), when the University of Alberta Golden Bears host the University of Calgary Dinos.
U-Sports hockey is a no-fighting league, of course, which carries suspensions anytime gloves get dropped … Well, almost anytime.
But that doesn’t mean things can’t still get chippy, chirpy and downright gritty out there.
It is still hockey, after all
“Yeah, at times games get a little bit rough, almost maybe in a different way than it usually does because we’re not allowed fighting, so you might see guys take a little bit of an extra opportunity to lay the body on somebody as clean as they can at the time,” said defenceman Sawyer Lange, who is in his fifth year with the Bears after spending the previous four seasons with the WHL’s Prince Albert Raiders. “It gets a little bit chippier behind the play and maybe a lot more mouthing off to each other, just because there isn’t that extra threat of a fight breaking out.
“I think because a lot of guys come from junior leagues where there is fighting, they’re used to that kind of environment so you can’t really turn that side off. It is a passionate game and it is a physical game, so you’re always going to have that clashing between opponents.”
As Lange was reminded of during last year’s national championship tournament, when his Bears were about to beat the rival University of Saskatchewan Huskies in the semifinal , and he was hauled to the ice and had his jersey pulled over his head by Alex Forsberg, who was playing the final minutes of his university career.
It left the Bears defenceman no choice but to engage in his first fight since junior hockey, all the while knowing a suspension would mean missing the championship final.
“I think it was just frustration on their part with it being back-to-back years that we had met them at that same spot and they had come really close,” said Lange, whose Bears bounced the Huskies from University Cup contention at the last two nationals, while the Huskies fell in the final to the University of New Brunswick in 2017. “So they had been really close the last few years and some of the guys that were involved in the incident, it was their last year, so I think it was just the frustration from their careers there and what they had been through and not being able to get that national championship that they were looking for that kind of just boiled over.”
Following an empty-net goal in the final minute that sealed the 3-0 victory, the Bears were celebrating with a flyby of the bench.
“One of those guys grabbed one of my teammates and I got in there and got myself into a situation with another outside player that grabbed a hold of me,” Lange recalled. “My immediate thought was just to not drop my gloves and not get into a fight because I wasn’t really aware of what the rules were as far as suspensions. I was under the impression that if there was any sort of a fight that you were automatically suspended, and then it got to the point where my helmet was off and I saw that the ref wasn’t intervening, so I felt that I could only get punched in the head so many times before I had to protect myself, which is ultimately what I ended up doing.
“I found out later that if there is an outright instigator, then it’s only them that gets suspended. So I was not suspended for the final game, but I ended up getting a bit of an injury there, so it did limit me a little bit, which was disappointing.”
The defending champion Bears went on to fall 4-2 to New Brunswick . But there was no Round 2 for Lange with the Huskies this season, as both Forsberg brothers played out their university eligibility. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t more bad blood bubbling elsewhere.
“I think for the players, (Saskatchewan) might be who we consider our biggest rival just because they’ve been the ones we’ve met at the top every year, but I think for the city and for the fans and just for the atmosphere that’s associated with it, Calgary is definitely big,” Lange said. “Whenever you’re putting Calgary against Edmonton in anything there’s always going to be that rivalry there.
“There’s just that deep-rooted tradition, especially with as long as both our programs have been around in this league. There’s that rivalry culture and I know the players and our fans really get up for these games.”
‘GAME’S WAY BETTER NOW’
The good ol’ hockey game is changing.
You won’t see a situation like the one that exploded between the Edmonton Oilers’ Zack Kassian and Calgary Flames’ Matthew Tkachuk, when the University of Alberta Golden Bears and University of Calgary Dinos play a home-and-away series this weekend.
While Kassian was assessed a two-game suspension by the NHL for his manhandling of the situation, there is a blanket no-fighting policy in place by U-Sports and enforced by automatic suspensions.
“Well, when we played here at the university, you were allowed three fights, not in a game but in a season, and after your third fight, you started getting suspended,” said Bears head coach Ian Herbers, whose four-year playing career with the program included winning the 1992 national championship. “Now, if you fight, you’re out of the game and suspended so it just puts more importance on the officiating of doing a proper job and getting the calls right so things don’t escalate. Sometimes, that obviously doesn’t happen and teams get a little upset and things start going the wrong way.
“The game’s changed from the new rule change in that it’s a lot faster, the game’s way better now than it used to be. You could hold, grab, clutch and now you actually get to see skilled guys move pucks and make plays and be creative and enjoy the game. It’d be tough to take (fighting) right out, but definitely it’s way better than it used to be. When I played junior, it was line brawls, bench-clearing brawls, warm-up brawls. There’s rarely any fights nowadays, but it’d be tough to take it right now.”
On Twitter: @GerryModdejonge
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