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As U Sports Players Sit Sidelined, Two Alumni Make NHL Impact

Two U Sports alumni – Logan Thompson and Zach Sawchenko – realized their NHL dreams in different ways over the past week. But COVID-19 has sidelined many top Canadian university hockey players trying to chase their own.
Logan Thompson

Logan Thompson

The City of Las Vegas' official motto is "What happens here, only happens here."

That rings true for Logan Thompson, who became the first former Canadian university goaltender since 1990 to get an NHL start. Thompson, who played in U Sports with Brock University in 2018-19, ultimately lost 3-2 to Nashville, but he gave Vegas a great chance to win in a challenging debut situation.

According to U Sports expert and TSN broadcaster Victor Findlay, Thompson became the first U Sports alum to get an NHL start since former University of Manitoba netminder George Maneluk started for the New York Islanders on Oct. 28, 1990. Thompson did get a relief appearance back in March, which, at the time, made him the first U Sports alum to see any action in an NHL crease since ex-Laurier goaltender Rob Dopson got into relief action on April 9, 1994.

Thompson played 24 games with Brock University in 2018-19 after growing up in Western Canada, winning a WHL championship with the Brandon Wheat Kings in 2015-16. His U Sports tenure was short, but he won the OUA West's goalie of the year award, the rookie of the year trophy, and was named to the first and all-rookie all-star teams before electing to go pro in 2019-20. Thompson was tremendous in the ECHL and earned his first full-time AHL gig.

An undrafted prospect when Vegas signed him to a two-year in 2020, Thompson won the AHL's goaltender of the year award as a rookie with a 16-6-2 record and a .943 save percentage with the Henderson Silver Knights. Even in a shortened season, the 24-year-old proved to the organization that he's a legit NHL prospect for a team that has never had a strong one in the crease. Thompson has looked great in AHL duty this year with a 10-6-4 record with two shutouts, and Tuesday's promotion to the starter's net was well deserved.

And Thompson isn't alone in the U Sports-to-NHL route over the past few days. On Sunday, San Jose's Zach Sawchenko allowed just one goal in relief of James Reimer, who allowed six goals on 17 shots against Pittsburgh. It marked Sawchenko's first NHL game action, just three years after making his mark as one of the best university goaltenders in Canada with a 16-2-1 record and five shutouts in 19 games with the University of Alberta in 2018-19. 

Sawchenko won the U Sports University Cup championship the year before that after four years of high-level hockey with the WHL's Moose Jaw Warriors. Sawchenko earned his first NHL contract as an unsigned free agent in April of 2021, two years after signing with the team's AHL affiliate, the Barracuda.

U Sports has never been a major developer of NHL talent, but it's far from a dead-end. Joel Ward, Steve Rucchin, Cory Cross, Stu Grimson, P.J. Stock and current NHLer Derek Ryan are among some of the more notable names to make it to the NHL using the route. No big-name players typically come from U Sports, but it has proven to be a legitimate path for some players. One of Canada's best options at center for the 2022 Olympics, Philippe Maillet, played four years with the University of New Brunswick, winning the U Sports AUS MVP title in 2015 and 2017 and was the University Cup's top player en route to a championship in 2017.

But while the U Sports front office has a lot to be proud of this week, there's also extreme frustration across the board. But there's widespread anger and frustration among players in Ontario and Quebec left on the outside looking in due to new COVD-19 restrictions preventing many of the nation's top university athletes from participating in events in January. The government is only allowing players deemed to be "elite amateur athletes" to continue play, rendering most of Ontario's hockey programs ineligible, including U Sports.

"So, I'm an elite athlete if I'm 20 and playing in the OHL, but I'm no longer elite at the next level?" a Toronto-based player said. "Make it make sense, because I'm not sure anyone truly can."

"So it's safe to play in some arenas, and not others?" another player said. "We're vying for pro contracts here. Even if it's not an NHL one, some of us are still trying to make a living playing hockey somewhere."

The decision to have U Sports teams sit out wasn't made by the organization itself. It's from government mandates, and that's what makes it so frustrating for the players. The OUA cancelled games from Dec. 17 until Jan. 24 originally, with teams set to return to practice on Jan. 6. But in Ontario's case, the new restrictions mandate games to be on pause until Jan. 26, and with a two-week window planned for practicing once games return, that means players wouldn't return until mid-February, if at all. The national championship is set for March, but many believe U Sports won't return to finish the 2021-22 hockey season. Some players have already lined up pro deals in anticipation of a cancellation.

The elation from Thompson and Sawchenko's peers, many of whom never give up the NHL dream because you never know what can happen, is plentiful. But there's a reason for players trying to play while chasing their education – at home, now – to be upset given the circumstances. U Sports isn't at the level of the NCAA, and most of the top Canadian university players typically don't make it past the AHL, but they're still churning out a high number of pro players each year. 

What happens next for the hundreds of student-athletes looking to play competitive hockey, both on the men's and women's sides, is unclear. But regardless, not even having the chance to play under new guidelines is something that's going to sting for players just trying to make their dreams come true.


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