Written by Tessa Ratzlaff
After clinching first place in the BCIHL standings, and capping their best-ever regular season, the Spartans made quick work of their semifinal opponent Victoria, earning a familiar place in the championship series with a two-game sweep of the Vikes.
Having lost in the finals in each of the past two years and in three of the last four seasons, the series victory was put Trinity Western’s hockey team one step closer to their ultimate history-making goal: winning a first-ever BCIHL title.
It hasn't been easy to face adversity like the team has over the last four years, but captain Kaleb Denham, who hails Innisfail, Alta., has become a catalyst within the team’s efforts to overcome these tough barriers, and has led them to focus on a bigger purpose.
The third-year Denham, 21, who is majoring in business, became the captain of the Spartan in just his second year at TWU. Since then, Denham has brought significant leadership to the team, and has been a large part of the cultural growth exhibited within the men’s hockey program.
Denham decided he wanted to come to TWU for its successful business program, and to be part of a hockey team that was focused on its collective love for Jesus.
After his first year with the team, it was clear Denham was a player who would play a key role in fostering the culture of the team. Despite his young age and his newness to the program, he was named the team’s captain in his second year.
“I was definitely nervous in my first year (as captain), just because I had to learn the different tendencies of the players and coaches,” Denham says. “I’ve had to learn to balance the role between being a friend with the guys, and having to do things people don't necessarily like.”
Spartans coach Barret Kropf wanted to have Denham be captain for a few years in the program, rather that just making him captain in his last year. From what Kropf saw on and off the ice, Denham was just the right fit.
“Within the locker room he was already looked up to because of the impact his faith had on his game and how he played,” Kropf says. “He has a great maturity level that allows him on the ice to play with real composure, and off the ice he loves and cares for all his teammates. He always wants to make sure that everyone is performing to the best of their ability. He’s not a pretentious guy in any way shape or form, and I think that's why the guys love him.”
When Kropf saw Denham step away from junior hockey and come to TWU in his first year, he saw a changed mindset.
“There were a lot of things he had been wrestling with, whether it was finding a place to plant his faith or whether it was the opportunity to play the game without any pressure,” Kropf says. “It has been really amazing to see it all click where now he plays with a different purpose. His identity is in Christ, and he wants to play to honour God.”
Fifth year Dirk de Waal, who is Denham’s good friend and teammate, has suggests he was the perfect leader for this team.
“He has a respectful presence that everyone appreciates, and is a very strong and dependable player on the ice,” de Waal says. “He always brings the same level of effort and consistency to the game, and is never concerned with his own stats or own wellbeing – just about the teams.”
Since Denham and de Waal became roommates the past year, they’re relationship has blossomed as they have become a critical leadership duo, both within the confines of the arena and in the team’s faith-based community.
“Obviously we’re not perfect,” Denham says, “but we can still change our culture by the way we play on the ice, and by being positive encouragers.”
From de Wall’s perspective, Denham has been a huge influence on the team, and has been a good role model example for others to follow. He believes that Denham’s main drive and motivation is the spiritual development of the team.
“Without question he is a voice of reason, logic, truth, and Christian influence that people go to for
guidance,” de Waal says. “They seek out his opinion on different matters; the guys are drawn to the way he lives.”
From Denham’s mindset, being in the finals the last two years and losing both years, has fostered a healthy platform for the team’s ability to better handle adversity.
“Even when we lost last year – and it was even more heart breaking than the year before – a lot of the guys really came together after the game and said, ‘It’s a good thing life isn’t just about hockey.”
From Denham’s stall in the Spartans dressing room, he’s has seen the team grow so much, with so many more of his teammates taking their faith to new levels.
“Those are the kind of changes that really model success,” Denham says. “Even though we haven’t won a championship, we can look back on the last couple of years…and say that we have been a successful team.”
Kropf believes Denham’s impact will continue to grow not only around the locker room, but also around the league.
“Hockey is kind of a, ‘I’m gonna beat you up and we’re gonna smash you,’ type of sport,” Kropf says. “But for Kaleb, he has isn’t in that realm and has actually reached out to get to know all the captains across the league.”
Whether it is in warm up or after the game, Denham is often seen going up to the other captains and asking them how things are going, understanding that they are all in student-athlete environments.
With playoffs in full force, the Spartans will leave everything they have out on the ice. However, whatever the outcome will be, Denham will be their to support his team, and remind them that in the end, life isn’t just about hockey.
For Denham and his teammates, there is a greater purpose.