Mike Cazzola hopes to have lots more memorable moments before his hockey career is over, but winning a gold medal for Canada at the Universiade last month in Italy is certainly “the hockey moment of my career so far.”
The Guelph, ON native is in his second year with the Acadia hockey Axemen. Cazzola, 22, was one of three Axemen, along with Liam Heelis and Chris Owens, chosen to the AUHC all-star team that represented Canada at the international competition.
“It was a tremendous opportunity, getting to represent your country – the kind that doesn’t come along that often or happen to too many people,” Cazzola said.
Canada sent a good team to the Universiade, he added.
“We had 12 highly skilled forwards, seven highly skilled defencemen, and the best goalies in the AUS,” Cazzola said.
“Our first two games were against Japan and Ukraine. They weren’t bad, but they weren’t as skilled.”
Their other opponents, Russia and Kazakhstan, were tougher, and were ranked one and two going into the tournament.
“Russia had 12 players who play in the KHL (the Russian pro league), and Kazakhstan had a few national team players.”
Canada, on the other hand, “weren’t the favourites,” at least not in the eyes of the Europeans.
“Everyone expects Canada to have a good team, but at this level, you can never be sure because we have a different team representing us every time,” Cazzola said.
After convincing victories over Japan and Ukraine, Canada lost its final round robin game to Kazakhstan which, as it turned out, served as a bit of a wake-up call.
After edging Russia 2-1 in the semifinal, the final turned out to be a rematch with Kazakhstan, and this time, Canada won handily, 6-1.
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Winning the gold medal, and having the medals presented on the ice, “was definitely a moment I’m never going to forget. We knew we had a good team, but especially after the loss to Kazakhstan, we knew well how easily it could slip away,” Cazzola said.
Canada was ranked fourth going into the playoff round, but the AUS players dug deep, “knocked off Russia” in the semis, then defeated the Kazakhs for gold.
“(It) didn’t really sink in until I got home for the Christmas break. I never really thought about it. You go through so many emotions, celebrating with your teammates, and you’re just enjoying the moment,” he said.
Cazzola’s father and uncle made the trip, and got to watch the final in person.
“It was a real experience, a roller-coaster ride at times, and we had to take it as it came. It was a special moment, and even more special because my family was there.”
Cazzola finished the tournament as one of Canada’s top scorers with nine points, including three goals, and opened the scoring in the final.
“When you’re in the moment, you aren’t thinking about how you’re doing individually, as long as the team is doing well. Looking back, I’m pleased at how well I did, but I know my linemates had a lot to do with that.”
Cazzola played on a line with Heelis, his Acadia linemate, and Nick MacNeil of UNB, who led Canada in scoring.
“The coaches tried to keep teammates together, so me, Heelis and Owens got to play a lot on power plays. Our line clicked, and we had a lot of fun playing together.”
Cazzola credits teammate - and linemate - Brett Thompson for his decision to come to Acadia.
“I had pretty much decided on the University of Guelph, but Brett, who I’d played with in junior, and I got talking, and decided we’d both come here,” Cazzola said.
“He said he liked the ‘small town’ feel of Acadia, said it reminded him of home in Sault Ste. Marie. It reminds me of how Guelph used to be, before it got bigger.”
A year-and-a half later, both Cazzola and Thompson are thriving.
“It turned out to be the right decision for both of us. I have no regrets, at least not so far.”
Cazzola admitted it was “a little different coming back” to Acadia after the Universiade.
“In Italy, we focused totally on hockey, like it was in junior. Now. I’m back to balancing hockey and school, but it’ll be worth it in the end.”
Cazzola can look forward to two more years at Acadia, where he is toward a degree in kinesiology. He is also looking forward to the remainder of the season, and seeing whether the Axemen can fulfill their goal of a first-place finish – and, hopefully, a conference title.
“It’s a really close league, with anyone capable of beating anyone on any given night. You have to be ready for every game. That’s what makes the league so exciting, and the reason teams from here seem to always do well at nationals.”
In the meantime, he’s enjoying his time on the ice for Acadia.
“I’m definitely having fun here. Anytime you can play hockey when you’re attending school, it’s good,” Cazzola said.
“Part of every hockey player wants to play hockey for the rest of their life, but at the same time, you have to be grateful and fortunate for what you have. As long as that continues, I guess I am living the dream.”