Dylan Willick had options after he concluded his four seasons of junior with the Western Hockey League's Kamloops Blazers five years ago.
The dependable forward could have stayed closer to home and selected one of several schools in Western Canada that pursued him to continue his education and hockey career. He also could have picked up and relocated to Ontario to play for one of its powerhouse programs.
'It was a chance for me to experience another part of Canada and a chance to play for a winning program, and maybe win a national championship.' — Prince George, B.C. native Dylan Willick on his cross-country move to play hockey for the University of New Brunswick Varsity Reds
Instead, he decided to move six provinces and four time zones away from his Prince George, B.C., home to Fredericton and play for the University of New Brunswick Varsity Reds.
It didn't hurt that UNB was the defending University Cup champions back in the spring of 2013, but there was something about life at the Fredericton school that captured Willick's heart when he visited the New Brunswick capital for the first time.
"The first thing that struck me was the small-town feel of Fredericton and the school," said the 25-year-old Willick, a four-time academic all-Canadian. "I'm from a small town and this place has that small town feeling.
"I also liked the academic programs. It was a chance for me to experience another part of Canada and a chance to play for a winning program, and maybe win a national championship."
This week, Willick and the Varsity Reds will shoot for their third consecutive University Cup, renamed on Tuesday the David Johnston University Cup after the former Canadian Governor General and former University of Waterloo president who also played hockey at Harvard in the early 1960s.
This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for UNB. Willick lost nine teammates to graduation, but with his veteran leadership as captain and a hotshot rookie like Kris Bennett of Brampton, Ont. the Varsity Reds went 24-2-4 to claim their 11th Atlantic conference pennant in a row as regular season champions. They then waltzed through the playoffs with five straight wins to claim a fifth conference championship in eight years.
UNB opens their national title defence at home at the Aitken University Centre against No. 8 Concordia Stingers on Thursday. The seeds for the eight-team tournament are as follows:
- New Brunswick Varsity Reds
- Alberta Golden Bears
- McGill Redmen
- Brock Badgers
- Saint Francis Xavier X-Men
- Saskatchewan Huskies
- Acadia Axemen
- Concordia Stingers
After graduating with a computer science degree last spring, Willick returned to UNB for a fifth year to pursue a master's degree in business administration and another national championship ring.
He hopes to continue his hockey career next season, maybe with an American Hockey League team like a few of his former UNB teammates in Philippe Maillet (Ontario Reign), Jordan Murray (Belleville Senators) and Francis Beauvillier (Manitoba Moose), or maybe in Europe like Cam Braes, who now plays for Thurgau in Switzerland.
This has been a special season for Willick. He and his high school sweetheart Keyanna Sowden were married in Kamloops before returning to Fredericton last September.
They met in high school at Brocklehurst Middle in Kamloops. Keyanna has been with him every step of the way in Fredericton. Willick proposed to his bride-to-be while snowshoeing on a mountain at Sun Peaks Resort when the two were home for a Christmas break.
So before he could add a third national championship ring, Willick added a wedding ring to his crowded left hand.
"It would be great to add another ring," said Willick. UNB has won six national titles in the past 11 years. "Imagine being [head coach] Gardiner MacDougall and the coaching staff. They are running out of fingers to add another ring.
"I've had an amazing time at UNB, met so many incredible people. I would not have traded it for anything. The entire experience has shaped me into the person I am today. Yes, I'm a little sad that by this time next week I will have played my last game at UNB. But I'm also excited at the opportunity to win a third national title. Let's do it one more time."