Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – It's rare to cross such an entrenched sports battle line that is the MacEwan-NAIT men's hockey rivalry, so when Brett Magee did just that and walked into the Griffins' dressing room for the first time a couple months back, you could cut the tension with a knife.
Or a prank.
The mood got lighter in a hurry when his new Griffins teammates rolled out the welcome mat in their own way.
"The first day we got into the room, they hung a gold medal in my stall, which was actually pretty funny," said Magee, who played for a NAIT Ooks team that lost to the Griffins in the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference men's hockey final the last two years in a row.
"Guys were calling me Kevin Durant and stuff like that. There's been some good jokes, but honestly, it was all in good fun.
"You know what, it was an adjustment, but everyone took me in so well. They just have such a great team and culture here that it's been good."
Magee and his new teammates on the Griffins will face his old squad this weekend for the first time since they met in the final last March – Friday (7 p.m., NAIT Arena) and Saturday (6 p.m., Downtown Community Arena).
Upon a period of off-season reflection, Magee came to the realization he needed a change of scenery after spending his first two years of post-secondary eligibility in Ooks blue.
"If you look at NAIT's roster last year, they were pretty deep on the back end," said Griffins head coach Michael Ringrose. "I'm not sure he was getting an opportunity to play in a role that could showcase (his talents).
"Knowing him a little bit from junior, I remember fondly what he was capable of and thought he would be a pretty good fit for us moving forward."
Magee played with Griffins forward Sean MacTavish on the Alberta Junior Hockey League's Sherwood Park Crusaders and was on the same midget team as Ryan Baskerville, but it was still a big transition to switch programs and find his footing in a new system.
"It was a bit of a leap of faith, to be honest with you," said Magee, who is enrolled in business with an eye on an accounting degree. "But I talked with players that played under Mike before and they had nothing but positive things to say about him and who he is as a person, too. So, I was pretty confident making this choice.
"Coming to a completely new program – new coach, new systems, that was a bit of an adjustment. But I'm really happy I made the choice. I know it was the right decision. I'm having lots of fun right now."
Magee slid into the spot on MacEwan's blueline vacated by Drew Nikirk, who didn't return this season. After spending a few games getting acclimated, the Edmonton native is starting to show what he can do in bringing a no-nonsense steady defensive presence to the Griffins' lineup.
"He comes with high character and integrity and I think he's done a really good job of steadying our back end so far with his play this year," said Ringrose, who coached against the former Crusaders captain when he was at the helm of the Spruce Grove Saints.
"He works. He certainly defends hard and had a high hockey IQ. In my mind, he's a guy who's been able to step in this year and given us some valuable minutes on the penalty kill and five-on-five. He's a guy who could potentially see his role grow to see some powerplay minutes, as well. He's versatile back there.
"I wouldn't say it was a smooth transition, but if you look at his last four or five weeks, he's steadily shown improvement … and is certainly playing his best hockey right now."
As for stepping on the ice against his old teammates at NAIT, Magee notes he got a taste of it when the Griffins and Ooks tangled in a preseason contest in Athabasca, Alta.
"To be honest, I wasn't really sure how my old teammates at NAIT would receive me," he said. "But through this whole process they were actually very supportive of me. I actually reached out to 12 or 13 veterans on that team and let them know my decision because I wanted it to come from me. They were really supportive of it. That made it a little bit easier.
"We're playing them for the first time in the regular season here, so we'll see how that goes, but I'm looking forward to it," he added. "NAIT's a good program, they're playing some good hockey right now.
"I think our focus has to be on Friday because we have an opportunity here to finish the first semester in first place, so that's kind of where our focus is right now."
MacEwan (9-2-1-0) holds that spot heading into the final weekend of ACAC men's hockey play before the break, but the pack of pursuers is nipping at their heels. Red Deer College (8-2-1-1) is just a point back, while NAIT, UAlberta-Augustana and SAIT all have an 8-4-0-0 record, three points behind the Griffins.