For more than one reason, 2020 is going to stick in Burnaby’s Joe Carvalho’s memory for a long time.
A defenceman with the University of B.C. Thunderbirds’ men’s hockey team, Carvalho and Co. were closing in a major accomplishment when COVID-19 put a halt to everything.
While UBC saw its path to competing in their first David Johnston University Cup USport national championship since 1977 cancelled before the opening faceoff, all the groundwork, toil and achievements that got them to that point will be something that they can reflect on for decades to come.
The T-birds, who qualified as the No. 2 team from the Canada West Conference, were in Halifax on March 12 when the tournament was cancelled due to efforts to stem the spread of COVID-19.
“It was definitely not how we envisioned things going. The boys were pretty pumped to be (in Halifax), and to have that happen was definitely not what we saw coming,” said Carvalho, 24. “At the same time we could see why it had to be done. What can you do but just roll with it and move on.”
They were slated to meet the defending national champion University of New Brunswick the next day in the quarter-final contest.
Considering the amazing race they endured to get there, it was poignant that it took a massive global epidemic to stop their march.
Underdogs every step of the way, UBC overcame an 0-3-2 start to the regular season and an eight-game winless stretch midway through the year to turn a 9-19 record into a national tournament sprint.
By surprising the University of Alberta Golden Bears 2-1 in the best-of-three Canada West semifinal, the T-birds did what no Point Grey team has managed to do for 43 years.
“That was a crazy experience for us and definitely shocked the hockey world. No one saw that coming,” noted the blueliner of the triumph in Edmonton. “I think we were (pretty loose) entering that series. The crazy thing is we almost didn’t make the playoffs. I think the thing for us was we were so use to adversity and the pressure situations. The whole last three-to-four weeks of the season was like playoff hockey, we had to win those games.”
Going 5-3 over the final month of the regular season, including a sweep of the University of Manitoba Bisons in Vancouver, got them over the playoff bar and into fifth place. That pitted them against Mount Royal Cougars in the quarter-finals.
With all games played in Calgary, Vancouver’s team grabbed the opener 4-2, dropped the second contest 5-3, then needed overtime to upset the Cougars 5-4 in the deciding game. Carvalho contributed two assists in Game 3, which saw the T-birds build a 4-1 lead only to witness Mount Royal rally to tie it.
Having posted a modest two goals and four assists over the regular season, the offensive contribution in the must-win playoffs was a nice bonus.
“(Mt. Royal) came back to tie it with one second left. Going into the dressing room we regrouped for overtime and got the win – that was just another great moment for our team,” he said.
The focus shifted north to Edmonton for the semifinals, where the heavily-favoured Golden Bears were looking to carry a league-best 23-5 record to the nationals. But with the burst of confidence from their series win over the Cougars, UBC jolted Alberta with a 3-2 overtime victory in Game 1, thanks to netminder Rylan Toth’s 51-save performance and Jerret Smith’s game winner 8:28 into the extra session.
While the Bears evened the series the next night, with a commanding 6-1 triumph, the T-birds were undeterred.
“I think we just talked and said we have to have a short term memory and move on. It’s one game, winner take all. We tried to put it in the past and focus on the game at hand. … That’s one of the things we’ve said the whole time. We had nothing to lose,” said Carvalho.
In a tight-checking affair where the Golden Bears were stymied on three powerplay chances, Tyler Sandhu’s tally 2:18 into the third proved to be the difference, guaranteeing them a spot in Halifax.
While they were swept 2-0 by the University of Saskatchewan in the CanWest final, UBC kept it close and still bore the momentum earned from two rounds of upsets. They were eager to test that resolve against New Brunswick, but instead came home wondering what could have been.
Carvalho, who played four years and 254 games for the Western Hockey League’s Prince George Cougars – and only nine playoff games -- said a good playoff run was something truly special.
“There are actually a few guys on (UBC) who haven’t had a ton of playoff success in junior,” the Burnaby Winter Club product said. “We were talking about it, how basically since our midget days we hadn’t had a big playoff run, that this was it. It was quite devastating to have it end like this.
“The whole team felt like it was a special group, a special feeling and we could have accomplished something really great.”
The English major has one year of eligibility remaining, and feels the core of the team can still apply that brief burst of momentum for next season.
“We’ve already said, we’re going to get back here next year,” he stated. “We’ve got a little taste of what it’s like. It’s huge for the program, to get that taste of what it’s like to win, to know what it takes to get there.”