AJHL Alumni and Trojan Rookies Fuel ACAC Title Quest

Ken Babey was discussing his team’s performance Saturday night in the midst of a playoff pressure cooker, when he stopped to make a point.

“Remember,” he said. “Fifteen rookies.”

With such a sublime second half to the season, it’s not a topic that comes up much anymore around SAIT Arena. But it’s worth noting, as the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference (ACAC) men’s hockey championship goes down to the wire this weekend, that if it weren’t for the capability, the cohesion, and the chutzpah shown by the Men of Troy’s large gang of newcomers, they’d be nowhere near challenging for a provincial puck crown.

Powered largely by freshman force, the Trojans are all square with the older, more seasoned NAIT Ooks in this best-of-five ACAC final series, with both teams earning one victory so far.

“We’re playing high-intensity hockey against a veteran club. This is a (NAIT) team that went to the championship last year, and they’re really pushing to win a title,” said Babey, who’s led the Trojans to eight ACAC crowns and one national banner in 26 years behind the SAIT bench.

“You take things to another level in a championship series . . . and I believe our young group will build on the adversity and the pressure we’ve experienced so far.”

While the SAIT roster technically includes 17 raw ACAC rookies this season, 15 seems to be the operative number. The Trojans have 15 rookies who played at least 10 games of the regular-season schedule, and 15 rookies who’ve been in the lineup at least once during the club’s playoff run.

A dozen of those newcomers suited up for Game 1 of this ACAC final, a 3-1 loss in Edmonton on Friday, while that number was nudged up to 13 for Game 2, a 4-3 victory at SAIT Arena on Saturday.

“It is amazing to me,” says Trojans captain Garrett Watson (4th year, Calgary, bachelor of business administration accounting, BCHL Westside), “how all these pieces have come together — how we’ve built a team that can make a solid run for a championship, right off the bat.”

The Trojans and Ooks will meet at NAIT Arena in Edmonton for Game 3 of this series on Friday, March 22 at 7 p.m. The ACAC final will come back to Calgary for Game 4 on Saturday, March 23 at SAIT Arena, with puck drop at 7 p.m. And if a Game 5 is necessary, it’ll all go on the line Sunday, March 24 at NAIT Arena, starting at 6:30 p.m.

Some of that Trojan rookie impact has been obvious. Goaltender Michael Tadjdeh (1st year, Calgary, welding technician, AJHL Okotoks), who spent time in the Western Hockey League with Lethbridge, Spokane, and Brandon, was not only named an ACAC first-team all-star — he was also tapped as the conference’s 2012-13 rookie of the year in men’s hockey.

David Watt (1st year, Duchess, Alta., pre-employment carpentry, AJHL Brooks) and Colton Semenok (1st year, Banff, Alta., pre-employment carpentry, AJHL Brooks) have pretty much been the team’s top defensive pairing, and the backbone of the No. 1 power-play unit, since the start of the season. They were also feted as ACAC all-stars — Watt on the first team, Semenok on the second team. Big J.D. Watt (1st year, Cremona, Alta., energy asset management, AHL Manchester), a former draft choice of the NHL’s Calgary Flames, has done what Babey and his staff had hoped he would — that is, step into a power forward’s role, wear the ‘A’ as an assistant captain, and finish fourth on the conference’s points leaderboard, with 40 in 28 games.

Some contributions are not so obvious. Craig Gans (1st year, Olds, Alta., academic upgrading, AJHL Okotoks) and Clay Howe (1st year, Lethbridge, Alta., petroleum engineering technology, AJHL Olds) are SAIT’s top shutdown pairing on defence. Ben O’Quinn (1st year, Woodstock, Ont., pipefitting technology, GOJHL Niagara Falls) and Mitch Board (1st year, Calgary, business administration, AJHL Fort McMurray) have combined creativity and speed as linemates all season. Riley Paterson (1st year, Calgary, business administration, SJHL Yorkton) and Brent Struble (1st year, Wawota, Sask., electrical technician, SJHL Yorkton) have provided grit, hustle, and tenacity as linemates.

And the list goes on.

“It’s so hard to pick names. ‘Wisey’ (defenceman-turned-forward Matthew Weisensel) has been playing great. Struble’s always so defensively minded, but he can put the puck in the back of the net. Paterson can drive to the net. Quinner’s got great vision and skating,” says Watson.

“Everyone’s completely rolling and clicking the way they need to. It’s crazy when you think how far we’ve come in a few months. It’s been huge.”