As the days ticked away in June 2019, Scott Walford knew he needed to sort out his future.
A 2017 third-round draft pick of the Montreal Canadiens, the defenceman went unsigned and became a free agent despite once ranking highly as a prospect.
For the Coquitlam, B.C., native, who had been an assistant captain with the Western Hockey League’s Saskatoon Blades and Victoria Royals, it left a void in his career. He sought other pro opportunities, but nothing came to fruition. Eventually, he took to McGill University in U Sports.
Walford and 21 other U Sports men’s hockey players will swap their school colours for all-star team sweaters between Dec. 12-13 in Oakville, Ont., taking part in a two-game exhibition series as part of Hockey Canada’s world junior hockey championship selection camp ahead of the tournament in Gothenburg, Sweden.
It’s the second time Walford will represent a selected team as a university player after winning gold with Team Canada at the Lake Placid 2023 FISU World University Games in January. 10 others from that team have also made the all-star roster.
Yet, for Walford to reach the status of one of U Sports’ best, it took a challenging first two years at McGill. His first year fell gameless due to COVID-19, while his second saw McGill struggle throughout the season’s first half, up until a 7-4 win over Concordia University in December 2021.
“I thought I had played my best game of the first half of that season against Concordia, and it felt like I wasn’t second-guessing or overthinking things as I was before,” the now 24-year-old added. “It was almost a relief to know that I still had my game, and that set me up for the second half.”
Best possible challenge
The exhibition selection camp games offer ample challenge to the Canadian world junior hopefuls as they take on players from 21-25 years old while also giving the U Sports players a spotlight they don’t often have with their programs.
While university players have participated in the camp since 1988, the all-star tradition began in 2015, with U Sports winning six of 11 matchups.
In recent years, the selection for the team has shifted as well. For Queen’s University head coach Brett Gibson, given the keys to the all-star team, it’s about bringing a group of university players that will test the world junior hopefuls.
His selections left off some of the top offensive players in favour of those who can form a cohesive team, a responsibility he feels towards representing U Sports, and based on a conversation with Hockey Canada following two U Sports losses in 2016.
“We wanted to bring a team that could challenge them, give them some adversity, and push them,” Gibson said, preparing to coach against the world junior camp for the fourth time. “That’s not necessarily the top scorers in each division; it’s bringing a collective group that can push in more of a series, rather than an ‘all-star game.'”
The <a href=” Hockey All-Stars took on <a href=” at their World Juniors camp – and it was 🔥 / Les étoiles du hockey U SPORTS ont affronté @HockeyCanada_fr à leur camp des mondiaux juniors – et c’était 🔥<a href=” | <a href=” | <a href=” <a href=”https://t.co/K1AqaZYUti”>pic.twitter.com/K1AqaZYUti</a>
Among the U Sports roster are three NHL Draft Picks, with Walford joined by Queen’s defenceman Jacob Paquette, a 2017 pick of the Nashville Predators, and University of British Columbia’s Sasha Mutala, a 2019 selection by the Colorado Avalanche.
While preparing the world junior players for looming challenges at their tournament, the influx of NHL scouts at the event also allows the U Sports players to showcase themselves, potentially sparking interest for professional opportunities.
“It’s a quick event, but one that can allow you to showcase your skills in a few games with a lot more exposure. We see some of that in U Sports, but there will be a lot of NHL scouts there,” Paquette said. “It’s not really an added pressure, but if you play well and do the small stuff, maybe you could have some more eyes on you.”
🏒 UNB’s Austen Keating headlines roster for 2023 U SPORTS Men’s Hockey All-Star Series<br><br>🏒 Austen Keating de l’UNB en tête d’affiche de la formation pour la Série des étoiles du hockey masculin de U SPORTS <br><br>EN: <a href=” <a href=” <a href=”https://t.co/u8Y1dxwS96″>pic.twitter.com/u8Y1dxwS96</a>
Although those in U Sports often played alongside world junior players in the Canadian Hockey League, they are among a group that weren’t all ready for the professional stage at 20 years old. Still, the opportunity to play U Sports allows them to continue developing before taking on their futures.
“U Sports can be a development league,” Gibson added. “Any weaknesses they had coming out of junior can hopefully be addressed, and they can walk into a pro camp as a 24-year-old and thrive.”
Around the U Sports world:
- The University of New Brunswick Reds men’s hockey team and Concordia Stingers women’s hockey team completed perfect fall seasons, with 18-0-0 and 13-0-0 records, respectively.
- The University of Calgary Dinos men and UBC Thunderbirds women won their respective conference titles in Canada West swimming, each continuing their strong history in the pool.
- The fall seasons across the country are all wrapped up, with Canadian university action set to resume in early January and the sprint towards championships in March.