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NHL lockout benefits UBC Thunderbirds

The general consensus has been that nobody wins from the NHL’s current work stoppage. But it’s been a boon to…

By Blake Murphy , in Sport , on November 21, 2012 Tags: , , , ,

Vancouver Canucks’ goaltender Cory Schneider faces a 2-on-1 at a Thunderbirds’ practice. (Photo: Blake Murphy)

The general consensus has been that nobody wins from the NHL’s current work stoppage. But it’s been a boon to the UBC Thunderbirds men’s ice hockey team in more ways than one.

The Vancouver Canucks have been without a facility to practice in during the NHL lockout. So, for the past few months, Canucks and other NHL players have been sharing practice time and workout facilities with the UBC team at the Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre.

In fact, two or three times a week the Sedin brothers, Dan Hamhuis, Kevin Bieksa, Cory Schneider, Manny Malhotra and more have joined the Thunderbirds in full practice sessions, including drills and scrimmages. The unusual situation has been an invaluable learning experience for the Thunderbirds.

For the UBC players, when they can set aside the awe of practicing alongside heroes they would otherwise be watching on television, what separates these players from the rest of the world becomes apparent.

A UBC defenceman gets a lesson from a pair of Canucks. (Photo: Blake Murphy)

“It’s been great, it’s a treat having them out there,” said Dillon Wagner, a freshman forward for UBC. “It’s been really beneficial to us, too. We see them in the gym, and the work ethic those guys have, off the rink and in drills, they’re always working hard and trying to make themselves better. It makes you appreciate how hard it is to get where they are and how hard they worked to get there.”Head coach Milan Dragicevic has also appreciated the infusion of such a dedicated and talented group of players to his practices.

“It’s been a great experience,” said Dragicevic. “We’ve learned so much from them. They’re professionals, they’re some of the best players in the world. It shows our guys how hard they work, how they prepare and how they do little things right.”

The impact of practicing with NHL-calibre players is mostly intangible. The Canucks aren’t sharing power-play tactics, and talent isn’t transferable through osmosis.

Still, the proof of the potential impact is evident in the early season success for UBC. The Thunderbirds are currently in third place in the Canada West Conference with an 8-3-1 record. If they continue at the current pace, this season will be UBC’s best finish in terms of points per contest since 1971-72.

Dragicevic is quick to credit the NHL players with bringing a certain level of intensity to practices that might be difficult to sustain otherwise.

“I don’t think it hurts,” Dragicevic explained. “It elevates our practice when they’re out with us. Our guys work hard as it is, but when you’re playing with Daniel (Sedin) and Henrik (Sedin) and (Dan) Hamhuis, our guys pick it up a little bit.”

The UBC Thunderbirds have experienced a dramatic rise in performance this season. They currently sit third in the Canada West conference at 8-3-1, a pace that would see them finish with their best record since 1970-71. (Graph: Blake Murphy)

But the success on the ice isn’t the only area where the NHL lockout is having a positive impact on the program. Bieksa’s Buddies, a charity game put on by Kevin Bieksa and other NHL players on the UBC campus, was a huge success. The carryover from that game, along with the additional interest in UBC hockey given the lack of NHL action, has helped improve attendance and atmosphere for Thunderbird home games, too.

“We did get a pretty big spike after the Bieksa game,” said Leon Denefeld, the coordinator of marketing and promotions for UBC athletics. “Because of the short season and different promotions, it’s tough to compare apples to apples for attendance. But hockey fans have realized it’s pretty good hockey. There’s some huge upside to (the Canucks) practicing here.”

For students and non-students alike, the UBC Thunderbirds have provided an alternative medium for the hockey-starved fan. While the Vancouver Giants Junior A team certainly provides one option, the lockout is still bringing people to the Thunderbird sports centre who may not have come otherwise.

“I went to the game for some cheap entertainment, to see friends and to see some hockey. Plus I was lonely,” said Matt Douglas, a non-student who attended a Thunderbirds game in late October. “I likely would have been watching the Canucks at home rather than venturing out to watch live hockey, if they were playing.”

The fact that the lockout is dragging on is, without question, harmful. The potential loss of interest in the sport, the lost revenue for teams and players, and the impact on local businesses, breweries and even scalpers all loom as impactful negatives.

But for at least one small group, this dark cloud has a silver lining.

“It’d be nice to watch them on TV and actually enjoy what they can do,” Wagner admitted. “But it’s nice having them out there.”