Like every other university hockey player, Brandon Wallis has had an up-and-down past couple of years thanks to Covid-19.
But he’s taken it all in stride and he’s happy to just be playing.
The 24-year-old from Yellowknife and his Concordia University of Edmonton (CUE) Thunder men’s hockey team are all done their regular season in the Alberta Colleges Athletics Conference (ACAC) regular season. They wrapped things on a winning note, beating Portage College this past Saturday, 3-2, overcoming an early 2-0 deficit in the process.
The regular season itself will close out this coming weekend and the Thunder will be watching to see where they end up once the standings are finalized. As of now, they sit second in the conference and if that holds, they will receive a bye to the semifinal next month; the top two seeds get to watch the first round play out between the third through sixth seeds with the first-place team getting the lowest-ranked of the seeds left. The semifinal series will be a best-of-three and if the Thunder can get past that, they’ll play a best-of-five series for the provincial championship.
Wallis said if the team does get an extra bye week, it won’t be too much of a problem.
“We just wrapped up an stretch of eight games in 16 days,” he said. “We have a few banged-up bodies in the locker room so it’ll be good to heal things up and get game-ready. We know the practices will be intense but we’ll be ready for the second round, if we get the bye.”
Wallis finished the regular season with five goals and four assists.
This season was a return to actual game play following the cancellation of the entire 2020-21 ACAC men’s hockey season due to Covid-19. All the players were able to do was either go to the gym and work out, like Wallis did, or practice whenever they could get on the ice.
“I was totally off my skates from about November (2020) to March,” said Wallis. “I went to the gym in Sherwood Park and we had a couple of weeks of practice but that was it. It was the longest stretch I’d ever been off of skates since I can remember, probably since I was a kid.”
When the announcement came that there would be something resembling a season, Wallis said it was a huge sigh of relief for him.
“I was just happy to get back out there because two years in a row of no hockey would’ve been brutal,” he said. “Our coach told us it wouldn’t start until (this past) November but we were just glad to hear that we could be playing and I think we’re all just grateful.”
The season for the Thunder lasted just 16 games but it was 16 more games than they had last season. They finished with a record of 11 wins, three losses and two ties and sit behind Edmonton’s Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) in the standings. NAIT has first place all locked up heading into the final weekend of regular season play.
Wallis has been playing in Alberta for several years, beginning in 2012 with the Sherwood Park Flyers U15 AAA squad. From there, he graduated to the U16 and U18 teams before getting his chance at Junior A with the Spruce Grove Saints in 2015, where he played just two games. He would then be signed by the Sherwood Park Crusaders, where he played in 168 regular season games — notching 23 goals and 41 assists over that time — and 13 more games in the post-season over three years.
Things didn’t look too good for Wallis near the end of his final campaign in Sherwood Park but he said a chance conversation with the then-head coach at CUE changed everything.
“I had no offers and I was considering hanging up the skates for good,” he said. “A week or two after the playoffs that year, I got a call from (Dan Glegloff) and he wanted to meet and talk. From there, he offered me a spot and a scholarship and here I am — still playing and still having fun doing it.”
Coming from the AJHL to collegiate hockey, Wallis said the big difference for him is the physicality of it.
“It’s a similar style to the AJHL but it’s different because it’s all adults,” he said. “In the AJHL, you’re playing 16 and 17-year-olds but now, you’re playing guys who are anywhere from 21 to 26 years old. A lot of the guys in our league came from the AJHL so there’s a lot of skill and it’s really fast, a lot more physical, too.”
Wallis, who’s majoring in environmental science, still considers himself a Northerner and admitted he’s missing not being able to come back home, especially over the past couple of years.
“I was talking with my parents and we can’t remember the last time we’ve been back there,” he said. “It’s been two years at least and I miss going home to see my buddies. I’m hoping I’ll be able to get back home this summer but I really hope the Rec Hockey Tournament is happening. I miss playing in that.”