When it comes to impressive feats for university hockey players, winning a University Cup as a player, and a Memorial Cup as a head coach is among the most improbable to achieve. In fact, it hasn’t been accomplished since Rick Cornacchia won a University Cup with U of T in 1973, and then a Memorial Cup with the Oshawa Generals in 1990. On Sunday night, Erie Otters head coach Kris Knoblauch has a chance to become the first to do so in 27 years.
Knoblauch’s journey to university hockey wasn’t that different from many other junior hockey players.
“I played junior hockey for three years, but didn’t have much success in the playoffs”, says Knoblauch. “After my 20 year-old season I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I felt I was a late bloomer and as a 20 year-old, I was starting to ‘get it’ and figure out what you needed to be to go pro and how hard you needed to work everyday.”
Knoblauch ended his junior hockey career in 1999. He would go on to play four playoff games with the Asheville Smoke in the UHL later that season, but wasn’t a huge fan of the experience.
“After my season was done I went and played pro, and I realized, I didn’t want to [keep playing pro]. Just because of the culture there and decided I wanted to move on and go to school, get an education, and play hockey”.
For any ex-WHLer looking for a place to get a degree and continue to play hockey at a competitive level, the University of Alberta is a prime destination. Knoblauch saw it the same way and regards his decision to attend the University of Alberta as “the best decision I ever made”.
The timing behind Knoblauch’s commitment to the Alberta Golden Bears couldn’t have been much better. The transition period for university hockey players always takes some time to go through, but Alberta was such a good fit for Knoblauch, he already began to find his comfort zone in the preseason.
“I had a really good [preseason] tournament playing with Bob Niedzielski and Colin Ranger. I think Rob [Daum] was impressed with my play and from that tournament I got promoted to play with [Russell] Hewson.”
In the 1999-00 season, Russell Hewson wasn’t just the best player on the Alberta Golden Bears, he was the best player in the league. Hewson had just come off a 69 point season, and would go on to put up numbers north of 75 points in his final two university hockey seasons, taking CIAU player of the year honours in both ’99-00 and ’00-01. Playing on a line with Hewson wasn’t a job for just any player.
“I remember the first game [Hewson] and I played [together]. I was terrible. But Ryan Wade and Hewson played really well and Rob [Daum] kept us together from that day on”, recalls Knoblauch.
Whatever the rationale was behind sticking the three players together, it worked. While Hewson put up 78 points that season, both Knoblauch and Wade posted 51 points themselves, making the line one of the most productive in the country. But as good as the Golden Bears were that year, the Saskatchewan Huskies wound up with the best record in the regular season.
Alberta would go on to sweep the Calgary Dinosaurs in the division finals, setting up a match in the CWUAA final against their adversaries from the University of Saskatchewan. After Saskatchewan took game one by a 7-6 final, and Alberta tied the series after winning game two 5-1, the series-deciding game three saw the Saskatchewan Huskies beat Alberta, 7-3.
But with Saskatchewan hosting the University Cup that season, Alberta had still punched their ticket to the tournament — an opportunity they didn’t waste. Alberta would beat the wild-card entrant University of Calgary and the OUA’s UQTR Patriotes en route to squaring off against Tom Coolen’s UNB Varsity Reds in the final. This time the Golden Bears came out on top, squeaking by UNB with a 5-4 victory, giving Knoblauch a national title in his rookie season.
“I was so fortunate to be a rookie joining that organization. They had so many graduating players the year previous, and I got to play with the best player in the CIS at the time. It was perfect for me”, says Knoblauch.
Knoblauch would go on to play a full five seasons at the University of Alberta, reaching the University Cup in all five of them, although never winning another national title after his rookie season. Having been in so many sudden death scenarios as a player, Knoblauch isn’t any stranger to the same situation at this year’s Memorial Cup. But he does find reaching the Memorial Cup with Erie as a coach more of a challenge than making the University Cup with Alberta as a player.
“I was with [Alberta] for five years and every year we were going into the season a top five candidate to win [the University Cup]”, says Knoblauch. “In this situation, there’s 60 teams with roster turnover every year, so to get the opportunity [to play in a Memorial Cup final] I don’t think is as likely.”
With the Otters in a position to take home their first Memorial Cup in franchise history, it’s obvious who has the rooting interest of the University of Alberta. To this day, Knoblauch still keeps in touch with the program and some of his old teammates.
“Serge [Lajoie] was going to be my assistant coach with Team Canada U17 two years ago. But Serge got the [head coaching] job at U of A and because of time commitments, couldn’t do it. We’ve still talked about some players and recruiting from the OHL to the University of Alberta”, says Knoblauch. “Ryan Marsh I see sometimes when he’s coaching [the Edmonton Oil Kings]. Kevin Marsh texts me quite a bit and some other guys I see occasionally and talk to”.
Had Knoblauch not committed to the University of Alberta back in 1999, and had instead kept on chasing the dream of pro hockey first, who knows how this story unfolds. Knoblauch knows it wouldn’t be the same, which is part of the reason he recommends university hockey so highly to his players.
“Unless they’ve got an NHL contract or are on track to at least play in the American Hockey League, I think it’s best to go to university. Pick a good school where they’ll play and be part of an established program like the University of Alberta. For their hockey development it’ll just make them stronger. But it also gets them ready to fallback on something if hockey doesn’t work out for them”.
But on Sunday night, the focus is entirely on the here and now. In an all-OHL matchup, the Erie Otters will take on the Windsor Spitfires for the most prized possession in junior hockey. After four consecutive 50+ win seasons, Kris Knoblauch and the Erie Otters are finally in a position to win it all, just like the 1999-00 Alberta Golden Bears.