(FREDERICTON, NB) It’s just another game for the UNB Varsity Reds.
“I never thought of it as Canada versus Poland,” says second year V-Reds forward Oliver Cooper(Fredericton, NB).
The Varsity Reds host Poland’s national men’s team in an exhibition game on Sunday, at the Aitken University Centre. Game time is 2:00pm.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for us as a team to play this game, and we’re looking forward to it. It’s exciting for us, and for the fans as well, to see an international team play here in Fredericton.”
The Poles are currently ranked 20th by the International Ice Hockey Federation.
For comparison sake, Canada, Russia, Sweden, Finland and the United States are the IIHF’s top five.
“We’ll be competitive,” says former Varsity Reds head coach Tom Coolen, now an assistant with Team Poland. “You’re going to see a group of guys from the Polish League, guys that are home-grown, home-developed players.”
Coolen joined the Polish program with head coach Ted Nolan, a former Jack Adams Trophy winner as NHL Coach of the Year.
The pair has been tasked with breathing new life into Polish hockey.
“They’d been in the Olympics and World Championship in the past, but then they dropped down. That’s why Ted and I have been brought in, to try and re-develop their program.”
Nolan and Coolen have been hard at work since July.
“We’re just trying to get better, every national team break,” says Coolen. “We think we’ve made a step forward and we think we’re better than we were in September when we got together. We went to Budapest and won a tournament there, so we feel like we’ve made some progress.”
The Poles are preparing for the 2018 World Championship.
They’ll compete in the Division One tournament, the group just below the main event that will feature the likes of Canada and Russia.
Their Division One opponents include Slovenia, Kazakhstan, Hungary, Italy, and Great Britain.
Sunday’s game against UNB is part of their preparation for their World Championship run.
“We’re still evaluating players and seeing what’s going to be the best mix for us when we go to the World Championship, in April.”
Team Poland’s visit to Canada was a bit of a last minute thing.
“We were scheduled to go to South Korea, but they had to cancel,” says Coolen. “That left a hole in our schedule, so we had to scramble.”
That scramble included a phone call to current Varsity Reds head coach Gardiner MacDougall.
“Gardiner really stepped up. He helped us out. Without Gardiner, we couldn’t have pulled this trip off,” says Coolen.
But, come Sunday, MacDougall’s team will be focused on themselves, not their opponent.
“As a team, we like to focus on what we are going to do and not as much on what other teams do,” says Cooper. “We don't know a whole lot about them except they have tons of experience. We're just going to stick to our systems and keep doing what we've been focusing on all year.”
“If adjustments need to be made, we adapt well as a team and we will try to do so, if needed,” he said.
Cooper and his teammates are eager to face the Poles.
“It's definitely going to be different playing against guys who are a little older than what we're used to, but it's a good challenge for us right before the break, and it gives the guys with pro aspirations a chance to see where they stand compared to guys who have had success in those ranks.”
And while he’ll be a member of the visiting team, Coolen is also eager for Sunday.
“Fredericton is my home, and I haven’t been there since the end of July,” he says. “It’ll be great to come back to the Aitken Centre.”