Calgary’s Curtis deBruyn turns 24 today. The Chargers’ captain is a senior defenseman with a right-handed shot and a 23 on his back. Curtis is 3-17–20 in 95GP as a Charger, and when he’s not playing hockey, he is a Brad Pitt lookalike.
HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — Less than a year after retired UASystem chancellor Mack Portera relegated the program to club status after February 2012, and ten months to the day that UAH President Dr. Robert Altenkirch extended the varsity life of the program for the forseeable future, it just so happened that a team from Big Bad UAT would come to Huntsville to try and beat up on Little Sister UAH.
While the Chargers and Crimson Tide have tangled a little of late—men’s basketball has held their own in exhibition games each of the last two seasons, after which the Chargers would progress to the Division II Elite Eight—this was Huntsville’s chance to shine brightly, with UA’s Frozen Tide club team coming to play the varsity Chargers. It was the one-sided contest that everyone expected it to be; I’d joked for a good three weeks that it would be Alabama (+6.5) on the road, just to see if football fans noticed. Saturday night’s game would prove to be a 12-1 stampede of the sort that Nick Saban would appreciate.
With Kurt Kleinendorst still in his first month as UAH’s head coach, everyone was excited to see what would transpire. K2‘s charges scored early and often. Nashville’s Sebastian Geoffrion lit the lamp with just :30 gone with a back-hand shot between Sean Vinson’s pads. Atlanta’s Kyle Lysaght followed his linemate’s lead, scoring the first of his five goals just 2:17 later.
“I saw a lot of things that I liked,” Kleinendorst said. “We’ve only been together a little while, and we did some good things. We did some things that we’re going to have to find a way to do better. … It’s a win. We’ll take it, but I don’t want to get carried away with it.”
The Chargers kept building momentum, with goals from Lysaght and Curtis deBruyn (Calgary, Alb.) followed by shorthanded goals from Nashville’s Brice Geoffrion and Lysaght. From there, the Chargers cruised to victory. Freshman Chad Brears (Cold Lake, Alb.) scored twice, freshman Steve Koshey (Trail, BC) scored once, and junior Alex Allan (Calgary, Alb.) scored late in the second after knocking a guy through the corner door in the first period. The three stars of the game were deBruyn (1-3–4), Justin Cseter (Menomonie, Wis.) (0-4–4) and Lysaght (5-0–5).
Neither Charger netminder saw much work in the game. Freshman Gregg Gruehl (Dublin, Ohio) got the win, seeing only three shots on goal in two period, all in the second. Junior CJ Groh (Cincinnati, Ohio) saw one shot on goal in his 20:00 of action.
Alabama coach Mike Quenneville (UAH ’90) was clearly excited about the opportunity that playing the Chargers presents to his team. “We preach stuff every day, and when we get an opportunity to play a team that does everything so right, and have got the speed, it’s going to make us a better hockey team.”
Alabama scored midway through the second period, as 5’4″ Huntsville native Mark Wysock, an aerospace engineering student in Tuscaloosa found open space in the slot to push in a tumbling rebound for a power-play goal.
Kleinendorst seemed happy with his team’s effort. “For the most part, the guys went out and executed the plan that we’ve put in place up to this point. This is not about winning. This is about the process. When you play the game the right way, when you work your way through the process, winning is a by-product of that.”
The teams play the second game of the series at 3:00 p.m. on Sunday afternoon, and Quenneville is ready to see his team face the challenge. “[The Alabama players] are going to get faster, they’re going to be smarter, they’re going to move the puck quicker. We’re definitely going to get better for this experience.”
Having looked at the goalies, let’s turn our eyes to the young men who help keep pucks away from them in the first place: the defensemen.The Chargers are led by their gritty captain, Ryan Burkholder. As we noted in our rundown of the captains for 2010-11, Ryan has just two assists in three years in the blue and white. What “Burky” may lack in offensive production, he more than makes up for in defensive ability and character. Like Scott Kalinchuk before him, Ryan is a quiet leader of his team, taking players aside to reinforce the coaches’ instructions during practice. I watched the Chargers practice this morning, and one thing that struck me is that Ryan was totally locked in during any instruction from Coach Luongo. His attention didn’t waver a whit, and that focus is definitely shown by his play on the ice. Ryan is also a good student, with a GPA in excess of 3.0, which is no small feat at UAH. Matt Baxter brings a wealth of experience to the ice, serving as one of the team’s alternate captains for this season, his final one in a Charger uniform. Known to his teammates and coaches as “Jim”, Baxter combines size, skating ability, and a strong left-handed slapshot to provide the Chargers with solid blueline play as well as sparking the offense. What I always notice about Jim is that he keeps working. Baxter will be leaned on for his leadership on and off the ice this season, as the Chargers graduated Dave Nicoletti, Brennan Barker, and Brandon Roshko from last year’s defensive corps. As previously noted, Baxter is an excellent student, with a 3.5+ GPA while majoring in psychology and sociology. Tom Durnie has battled to get in the lineup his first two seasons, playing just 38 games in that span. “Durns” will be called upon to step up this season with half of the defensive corps being freshmen. The keys for Durnie are to play within himself and to utilize his reach effectively to disrupt the opposing offense’s flow down low. Tom has all the tools and needs to play consistently; I feel that he will make huge strides this season. Curtis deBruyn was a great addition to the Charger defensive corps in 2009-10, playing 32 games and scoring a goal and six assists. deBruyn plays within himself and does the smart thing, which you can see in the box score as he’s taken just 14 PIM in his college career. Despite playing for a 2009-10 team that had a -16 goal differential, deBruyn finished -2 for the season. Selected by his teammates as an alternate captain for this year, what I’ve noticed in watching practice for the last week is that deBruyn is a vocal leader on the ice. Lasse Uusivirta is the second Finnish player in as many seasons to come to play his college hockey in Huntsville. Uusivirta means “new stream”, and he promises to bring a scoring touch from the blueline. In 118 games for the Espoo Jr. Blues U20 team, Lasse was 36-41–77 and captained his team last season. Having watched him in practice, I expect Lasse to log plenty of minutes this season, including time on the power play. He seems to have a deft scoring touch from the outside, and I feel like he has a good feel for the game. There are always concerns about how a player will adjust to the speed of the college game, and freshmen will, of course, make freshman mistakes. My gut feeling, though, is that Lasse will be just as important to the team as deBruyn was last season. For the record, you pronounce it “Oo-see-VEER-tuh”—or at least that’s how I’ve heard it from teammates. Mat Hagen is the smallest of the Chargers’ freshman defensemen, listed at 6’0″, 185. From what I’ve seen in practice, Hagen is a good skater with decent hands. He seems to be a bit slow at times to move the puck offensively across the blue line, which will certainly bite him in the college game, but he seems coachable and should learn quickly what he needs to do to be successful at this level. In 62 games played for the Kanata Stallions in 2009-10, Hagen scored three goals and 28 assists, which bodes well for him to be an offensive contributor for the Chargers going forward. Nickolas Gatt comes to Huntsville from the Topeka Roadrunners of the North American Hockey League, where he scored two goals and 14 assists in 54 games. More importantly, Gatt finished +18 on the season, which indicates that he should be a solid addition for the Chargers defense. Listed at 6’3″, looks like he will fill out from his current 195-lb frame as his college career continues. Gatt has made strides in the week of practices I’ve watched, and I expect that he’ll be in the mix for a spot on the Chargers’ third pair.
Trevor Conrad is a big, bruising defenseman, 6’0″-215. He first caught my eye in practice by absolutely creaming Sebastian Geoffrion in the corner. Conrad looks to fill the role of the punishing defender, but he is working on his overall game in practice. As with Hagen and Gatt, Conrad promises to be in the mix defensively this season. All three will get on the ice based on their work in practice, and I’ve seen all of them give a good effort. Oh, and for the hockey fight fans amongst you, Conrad is the man in black …
[Ed.: I had Mat Hagen’s height wrong, and also had his incorrect junior team listed for 2009-10. I regret the error. –GFM]