It is about hockey and a life long love for the game. It is about practicing and playing and improving and achieving and making new friendships. It is about school and getting an education at a reputable community college.
The varsity men of Sault College are the only Canadian school that competes within the broad, expansive ranks of the American College Hockey Association. The Cougars joined the ACHA at the Division 3 level in 2018 and won the national championship in their first season. Covid has affected and altered the Sault College hockey program and the ACHA schedule ever since, though there is some semblance of hope for more routine days ahead.
Since their debut championship season, the Cougar men have moved from the Division 3 level of the ACHA to Division 2. But scheduling of games remains tricky with the majority of American schools still reluctant to make the trek this way and cross the International Bridge into Canada. And since teams in the ACHA are responsible for making their own schedules as part of how the league is set up, the Cougars have yet to play a home game in Sault, Ontario this season. Thus, their current record of 2-5-0 is from seven road matches.
There have been games that the Cougars have been able to play at Big Bear Arena in the Michigan Sault, however. And men’s hockey team officials are hopeful of playing home games at either Rankin Arena on Batchewana First Nation or the new twin pad replacement for W.J. McMeeken Centre on Goulais Ave. in the Sault’s west end before the end of the 2022-2023 season. The new McMeeken Centre is said to be on schedule for substantial completion by late January or early February of 2023.
Currently, Rankin Arena serves as the home practice site for the Cougars, who take to the ice two nights a week to sharpen their skills and plan for upcoming games under esteemed head coach Mike Hall and his staff of assistants that include Toots Kovacs and Tanner Burton, with Matt Walker overseeing the goalies.
The 2-5-0 record aside, aforementioned assistant coach Tanner Burton likes the makeup of the Cougars.
“You can see the improvement in practice,” Burton relayed, while appearing on a recent edition of the Hockey North Show podcast. “We have a committed group of players who are combining hockey with their schooling and I like what we have moving forward.
“We have a couple of wins now and the new guys are meshing well with players who have been here prior to this season. We have a lot of potential and I am excited to see us progress the rest of the season,” Burton said of the Cougars, who see their next action on November 11-12 across the St. Mary’s River at Big Bear Arena.
The 33-year old Burton is in his first season at Sault College after previously assisting the Soo Jr. Greyhounds of the Great North Under Hockey 18 League. Hailing from Echo Bay, just outside the Sault, Burton was a steady, overachieving defenseman through two seasons in the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League with the Blind River Beavers. He then played at the Division 3, National Collegiate Athletic Association level for the Marian University Sabres, spending four years at the Wisconsin school and graduating with a degree in Accounting and Finance. Not done as a player, Burton played several seasons in the Southern Professional Hockey League and East Coast Hockey League before heading overseas to finish his playing career in the Alps Hockey League. He has since put his degree from Marian to good use, working in the accounting office for Sal-Dan Developments in the Sault.
Meanwhile, a member of the Sault College staff since its debut season in the ACHA is the venerable Charly Murray. Long retired as a steelworker, the 70-something Murray is the Cougars head scout and recruiter.
Known for having a keen eye for identifying talent and for his loyalty and promotion of the dedicated players that he has scouted and recruited, Murray — who has spent parts of seven decades in the game — performed a key role in the success of a number of NOJHL teams over the years before joining the Sault College program in 2018.
His lengthy NOJHL gigs have included working for the Soo Thunderbirds, Soo Eagles, Blind River Beavers, Cochrane Crunch and the erstwhile Northern Michigan Black Bears and Elliot Lake Bobcats. To be sure, there are few in the junior game with the overall scouting/player advancement pedigree that Murray has, having helped send dozens of players on to higher levels of hockey over the years.
It is worth noting that most of the coaching and scouting work that Murray — who is affectionately known to his hockey friends as the “Old Goat” — has done over the years has been on a voluntary basis or for very little renumeration. And there have been many seasons when Murray would spend winter nights in cold rinks with renumeration being in the form of a team jacket and hat.
“I never, ever did this for the money,” the affable Murray relayed. “It has always been about the kids for me … and it always will be. And as we sit here now, I am loving my association with the Sault College men.”
Murray said that this edition of the Cougars is one of untapped potential.
“I think you will see us winning a lot more games before this season is done,” relayed Murray. “We have a good leadership group led by our captain Caleb Wood, good goaltending, and some very good players who are new to the program.”
One such newcomer is Chase Muswagon, who ventured approximately 1,200 miles from home to enrol in the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Technician program at Sault College and play for the varsity Cougars men’s hockey team after being recruited by Murray. Hailing from The Pas, Manitoba, the 21-year old Muswagon is settling into his first year of student life at Sault College.
Muswagon said that not only is he “loving” the hockey under a “staff that has so much knowledge of the game and are coaches who I trust” but he is taking away a lot from the Fish and Wildlife program.
“I have wanted to be a conservation officer for a long time now and hopefully this sets me up for a career after I graduate in a few years,” said Muswagon. “It’s a great program.”
Muswagon headed to Sault College in September with the blessing of his parents, Diana and Ernest Muswagon, following a 21-hour drive from The Pas.
“My parents supported my decision from the moment that I told them that I wanted to come to Sault College,” Muswagon relayed.
Back to the hockey, Muswagon said he is confident that the Cougars will improve on their current record of 2-5-0 as the season goes on.
“We have a good team and we have good coaches,” he noted.
A six foot, 180 pound, right hand shooting defenseman, Muswagon is coming off of a 2021-2022 season in which he helped the Dryden Ice Dogs to a third place finish during the Superior International Jr. Hockey League regular season and through two rounds of the playoffs. Regular season and playoffs included, Muswagon had one goal, six assists, seven points and 59 penalty minutes in 40 games while enhancing his reputation as a defensive defenseman and character individual.
Muswagon said he “loved playing in Dryden. It is a great little community. It became a second home to me and my billet family became like a second family. It took some time for me to get used to being away from home but once I settled into Dryden it didn’t take me long to feel at home and at ease.”
Muswagon also said he learned a lot about hockey from Dryden head coach Kurt Walsten.
“I loved playing for Kurt,” said Muswagon. “He is a great guy and he has a lot of hockey knowledge that he passes on to his players. The knowledge that he has for hockey is unreal. It was a great experience playing for the Ice Dogs and playing for Kurt. The Ice Dogs are a great organization and I had a great time in Dryden.”
Besides the hockey and the school, Muswagon also likes living in the Sault.
“Oh, for sure,” he said. “I love it here. The people who I have met have been great.”