Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – As the majority of the MacEwan Griffins men's hockey recruiting class of 2014 graduates from the team over the next month, they will ride off into the sunset having left the program in a better place.
Five fifth-year seniors who all started in 2014-15 with MacEwan – Taylor Bilyk, Matthew Waseylenko, Ryan Baskerville, Nolan Yaremchuk and Dallas Smith – will suit up for the final home regular season game of their careers on Friday when the Griffins host NAIT (7 p.m., Downtown Community Arena).
When they came in, the Griffins were a middle-of-the-pack team in the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference, struggling to get past the first round.
Now, MacEwan is a powerhouse coming off two-straight ACAC Championships, aiming to make it a three-peat when the playoffs get underway next week.
"If you look at this recruiting class – it was a large one for us," said head coach Michael Ringrose or a group brought in by former bench boss Bram Stephen that also includes current Griffin Bryan Arneson, who still has university eligibility left after playing professionally for parts of the last two seasons.
Former Griffins Drew Nikirk, Caleb Belter, Shay Laurent and Colten Meaver were also part of the 2014-15 recruiting class.
The five-year impact that Bilyk, Waseylenko, Baskerville, Yaremchuk and Smith have had is huge.
"This group of guys that is really the group, in my opinion, that turned the corner for the program," said Ringrose. "You think about where it was five years ago to where it is now, these are the guys that have shouldered that and have pushed that program step by step from where it was to where it is now.
"They will be remembered as an extremely important class of Griffins and a huge reason why we have the culture that we have now and have had the success we've had the last little while."
Ringrose noted all five of them have the same underlying characteristic that makes for champions – a team-first mentality.
"When you list all of those guys, to me the thing that's very evident is how this group is so willing to put the team first and play whatever role is asked of them," he said. "They work every day at their game and they have created a culture and a legacy that will be carried forward."
Bilyk has long brought his brand of solid defensive hockey to the Griffins, a tough defender on every play.
"I think Taylor will be remembered for his compete level and his willingness to sacrifice for his teammates above everything else," said Ringrose. "He plays the game fearlessly, is never afraid to step into a shooting lane and is consistently competitive on a nightly basis.
"Those are things that are difficult to find and he's certainly helped instill those values into the program in his time here and moving forward."
Waseylenko has mostly played defence but, showing his willingness to help the team in whatever role he's given, has filled in at forward for some injuries of late.
"Matt also plays the game with a high level of compete," said Ringrose. "On and off the ice, he's a pleasure to be around. Guys just absolutely love him in the dressing room. He's a guy who's willing to put team first.
"If you look at his history here, he does whatever is needed for the team to have success. Whether that means he's playing forward like he has been the past few games for us or playing a role where he's focused on being a physical presence and shutting down the other team's powerplay on the penalty kill, he's a guy who's consistently been relied upon in defensive situations for the five years he's been here."
Matt Waseylenko has played many important minutes for the Griffins, mostly on defence, over his five-year career (Matthew Jacula photo).
Baskerville has long been the guy who will stand in front of the net and take all the abuse the opposition dishes out in order to score gritty goals. This season, his offence has taken off, too, as he enters the weekend second on the Griffins in scoring with 29 points in 26 games.
"On and off the ice, he's been a huge contributor to the program," said Ringrose. "If you look at the work he's doing this year with the Student Athletic Council as the president, that certainly will leave a legacy. He shows tremendous leadership, is another guy who shows up at the rink every day and just works.
"This year, he's found a scoring touch around the net and has really added some offence for us, yet he's still maintained his reliable 200-foot game. He's one of those guys who is going to be remembered for his impact at both ends of the rink."
Ryan Baskerville is averaging better than a point a game in his final university season (Matthew Jacula photo).
Yaremchuk has brought the fun off the ice and a hard-working style on it, scoring his fair share of big goals over his career.
"I'm not sure there's a guy who's done more for the social culture on our team in the last five years than Nolan has," said Ringrose. "He's extremely well-liked in the dressing room, has a great pulse on the group and is a tremendous leader in that regard.
"He, like these other guys, is willing to play any role for the team to be successful. He's taken on a penalty-killing role this year and is a reliable 200-foot player. He's another guy who plays both ways and contributes. He's a key piece of the fabric of this Griffins group now and has obviously left a legacy that will be carried on into the future."
Nolan Yaremchuk has scored plenty of big goals for the Griffins on the ice, while acting as the team's unofficial social convenor off of it (Matthew Jacula photo).
Smith has eye-popping speed, which has led to offensive and defensive success during his five seasons at MacEwan.
"A ton of speed, obviously, is the hallmark of his game," said Ringrose. "He plays the game with pace, is tremendous with his puck pursuit. He's a guy who doesn't stop working and that's evident if you watch him play.
"He contributes on both the penalty kill and the powerplay. More importantly, he's a relentless worker, who drives our engine. That's an important role to play."
Dallas Smith brings relentless puck pursuit to the table, using his speed to great effect (Nick Kuiper photo).
The weekend series against NAIT is essentially a first-place showdown, although the Griffins would have to beat the Ooks in both games in order to pass them for top spot. MacEwan also has company in the rearview mirror as Red Deer College has climbed within a point of them for second in the standings.
Either way, securing a first-round bye that goes to the top two seeds is chief among their goals this weekend. That it comes against such a heated rival – the team they've beaten in two-straight finals – adds to what should be a terrific pair of games.
"Any time you get a chance to line up across from NAIT, there's a history there and a rivalry," said Ringrose. "It's exciting. I have no doubt our guys will be fired up and ready to go this weekend."