The OHL to U of T: Aidan Wallace and the growing trend of university-bound CHLers

'I think more guys are starting to take advantage of it,' says Varsity Blues captain

It wasn’t looking good for Aidan Wallace’s University of Toronto Blues men’s hockey team last Saturday night. They had just lost to McGill the night before, and now they were down 4-1 to Concordia with four minutes left in the third period.

Banners hang from the rafters of Varsity Arena. The Blues are 10-time CIAU champions. (Ryan Cuneo/Toronto Observer)

The smattering of U of T fans inside Varsity Arena had started to thin out and a third straight loss seemed all but assured. That’s when the Blues, led by their captain Wallace, dug deep and delivered a rousing comeback. First-year forward David Thomson cut the deficit to two goals before Wallace scored twice, including the game-tying marker with 12 seconds left, to force overtime.

But Concordia’s Hugo Roy scored 49 seconds into the extra frame to send the remaining fans home disappointed, and Wallace’s herculean effort went for naught.

U of T and Concordia face-off in the third period of last Saturday night’s game. (Ryan Cuneo/Toronto Observer)

Wallace’s late-game resolve came as no surprise to U of T head coach Ryan Medel. It fit a pattern that made Medel’s choice to name him team captain this season an easy one.

“He’s a very driven individual who has an incredible work ethic on and off the ice,” said Medel of his fourth-year forward. “He holds himself and his teammates accountable and says the right things at the right time, which is an important trait for leaders to have. He sets the standard through his play on ice but also how carries himself off the ice.”

Means to an end

Clearly, Wallace still cares about hockey for its own sake, but the Memorial Cup champion has also used his junior hockey career as a means to attending one of Canada’s top-notch institutions.

U of T goalie Frederic Foulem watches the action at the other end of the ice. (RYAN  CUNEO/TORONTO OBSERVER)

“I had a great hockey experience with Oshawa in the OHL,” said Wallace prior to a team practice last week. “Now I’ve been able to go to university for four years and pursue something I’m interested in and get an education that will hep me down the line.”

Wallace is one of a growing number of players to use the CHL Scholarship Program, which grants a year’s tuition for each year spent in major junior hockey. According to the OHL’s website, 301 scholarships were provided following the 2016-17 season, with commissioner David Branch reporting that 49 per cent of OHLers are tapping into the fund.

“I think more guys are starting to take advantage of it, for sure,” said Wallace, who is double majoring in Political Science and Philosophy. “I think maybe in the past guys might not have.”

The CHL’s focus on education goes beyond the creation of the program. Wallace and his Oshawa General teammates would often go to local elementary schools to preach the importance of balancing school and sports.

Listen to Varsity Blues hockey captain Aidan Wallace discuss the value of university hockey.

“They’d have us do that a lot in Oshawa, go out into the community and talk to kids,” he said. “It’s easy to think when you’re a young kid you’re going to go the NHL and everything’s going to be a cakewalk, but there’s injuries and things don’t always go the way you want them. The message was always to not let school lag behind if you’re going to pursue hockey or any sport. You have to make sure you have your marks up and you’re taking care of that side as well.”

As a neat side benefit to the rising popularity of the scholarship program, Wallace believes the increase of former CHL players in CIAU hockey has led to a higher level of play.

“I definitely think the league is getting better,” said the Toronto native. “There are more and more guys from major junior and player’s that are coming from pro that are choosing to go to school.”

Players relax post-whistle during last Saturday’s U of T-Concordia game. (Ryan Cuneo/TORONTO OBSERVER)

Too bad most people in a hockey saturated market like Toronto don’t realize it.

“Here there are quite a few teams,” said Wallace, one of eight former CHLers on the U of T roster. “You have Ryerson, you have us, you have York, but everybody is a diehard Leafs fan. Plus, there are so many options out there to see hockey that it’s tough to choose sometimes for people.”

If you live in the city, it would be hard to disagree with Wallace’s assessment that everybody in Toronto is a Leafs fan. Everybody except Wallace himself, that is. According to his bio on the Varsity Blues website, Wallace roots for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

“That might be a bit of a generalization,” laughed Wallace. “But yeah, I am a Pens fan. I do like them a lot.”

Crosby over McDavid

Being a Penguins fan, it’s no surprise how he weighed in on hockey’s talking point du jour. Who’s the best player in the world, Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid?

“See that’s tough,” exhaled a deliberating Wallace. “I played against McDavid when he was a lot younger and even then, he was a fantastic player. I think Crosby might still be a little bit better but McDavid has that explosive skill set that just stands out on the ice.”

Much like his Penguins fandom, Wallace’s opinion on the topic makes him a minority in his hometown. What’s the popular choice in Toronto? Why, neither. It’s Auston Matthews of course.