October 12, 2023 | SPORTS | By Michael Braithwaite

With a rebuilt offensive unit and newfound postseason experience under their belt, the Colorado College Tiger Hockey team began their third season at Ed Robson Arena by taking on the Simon Frasier University Red Leafs in an exhibition match on Saturday night. The matchup delivered not only the excitement the Tigers generated at the end of last season but also the hype built by their off-season activity.

By beating out the rival No. 3 University of Denver Pioneers and advancing to the National Collegiate Hockey Conference Championship last season, the Tigers showed that they were ready to compete in the conference for years to come. But with an array of offensive pieces leaving via graduation, the transfer portal, and the NHL, CC had its work cut out to keep the momentum.

Losing experienced players to the transfer portal such as forwards Noah Prokop and Matthew Gleason, as well as veteran goalie Matthew Vernon could have had a crippling effect on the team. But head coach Kris Mayotte had a spectacular offseason recruiting class, one ranked No. 10 in the country, and included recent NHL draftees in forwards Zaccharya Wisdom ’27 (Seattle Kraken) and Klāvs Veinberg ’27 (Tampa Bay Lightning).

And when SFU came to town for the contest on Saturday night, the first game for the Tigers in over seven months, the youth movement made itself known.

The veterans began scoring early, with CC starting out fast and loose. Forward Tyler Coffey ’24 intercepted the puck near center ice scored on a breakaway midway through the first period. Then, after allowing a score from SFU early in the second frame, forward Logan Will ’24 countering with a score of his own just a minute later.

But later in the matchup, the young guns took over. Forward Noah Laba ’26 would add two scores later in the matchup – with the second coming after he cut between two defenders and placed a spectacular shot over the SFU goalie’s shoulder while falling to the ice – and first-year additions Tyler Dunbar and Bret Link recorded one goal each.

Last year’s first-year sensation Kaidan Mbereko ’26 picked up right where he left off in net, continually making astounding saves look routine even while having his vision blocked by SFU forwards throughout most of the contest. Mbereko faced 21 shots while allowing just one to get by him over the first two periods before being replaced by incoming transfer Henry Wilder ’25 for the third period.

Despite the momentous offense and sturdy goalkeeping, the 6-3 final score was not a final line from a one-sided blowout. The Tigers, led by their underclassmen, piled on goals throughout the contest, but also showed their lack of experience and allowed SFU to climb back into the game.

After taking the initial 1-0 advantage, CC’s loose play got the team into trouble. Defenseman Ethan Straky ’26 was called for an interference penalty. Just over two minutes after the score, he was then called for another minor penalty – this time for high-sticking – just seconds after he came out of the box. Another 40 seconds into the second penalty, forward Ray Christy ’24 was called for an elbowing penalty, giving SFU a 5-on-3 for about 70 seconds.

The Tigers were able to survive the penalty without allowing a goal, but the situation characterized a game-long issue for the team: the penalty box. Of the 60 total minutes played, CC spent over 13 of them in the penalty box, more than they did in all but six games last season.

In the last five minutes of the final frame, CC’s issues with the penalty box reached their climax.

Although just an exhibition matchup, both teams wore their emotions on their sleeves. These emotions, combined with multiple significant hits and other combative plays, culminated at a breaking point nearing the end of the third period.

After a play in SFU’s defensive zone, multiple scrums, including one between Laba and SFU forward Ben Ward, began near the right side of the net. As officials rushed to break up the shoving matches, Laba, still heated from the moment, seemed to forcibly contact the referee pulling him away. This contact resulted in a five-minute major penalty, an immediate game disqualification and a potential suspension.

“One of our guys lost his mind,” said Mayotte in an interview after Saturday’s game. “You put yourself down on a [penalty] kill and at the end of the game when you’re trying to get back in shape a little bit. We didn’t do it as well as we needed to.”

Despite Saturday’s contest being an exhibition game –none of the statistics count for any player – the usual one-game suspension for such an infraction remained in place for Laba. As a result of the penalty, Laba will sit out the regular season opener against Union College on Friday night, a significant loss for the offensive unit, according to Mayotte speaking on his weekly KRDO radio show Tuesday night.

But such is life for a young and hungry team. The athleticism and skill of the players will be paired with frustrating – but necessary – learning moments as they gain experience on the ice. With 16 of the 28 rostered players sophomores or younger, these learning moments may be common as they develop, both as players and as teammates.

“[We] have a lot of learning to do, had to get up to speed,” Mayotte said. “I thought when we played them five-on-five, we were pretty good. But power plays were 10 to four, so as a coach that’s not good.”

And that’s not to say the team lacked cohesiveness from the outset. The young talent showed throughout the matchup exactly why they are so highly touted. With a combination of speed and technical ability, the new recruits highlighted just how dangerous CC may become not only this season, but in future seasons to come.

The Tigers will take on Union College in a Homecoming Weekend series at Ed Robson Arena. Friday night’s game begins at 7 p.m., and Saturday’s at 6 p.m.

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