Willander and Celebrini

The NCAA’s Frozen Four tournament is the penultimate challenge of a long and demanding college hockey season.

And it all gets started on Thursday.

The final weekend of the NCAA hockey year captures the attention of many in the hockey world as we get to see the best atmosphere, the best players, and the best action that college hockey has to offer.

The lights are brighter, the game is harder, and the rewards are sweeter.

The Vancouver Canucks have two first-year NCAA players playing in the tournament with Aiden Celebrini and Tom Willander being impact defencemen for the Boston University Terriers. And the Canucks Insider was able to catch up with both players in advance of the weekend.

Celebrini and Willander were selected by the Canucks in the most recent NHL Entry Draft – Celebrini going in the 6th round (171st overall) and Willander being selected in the first round (11th overall).

Boston University, or BU, came into the season as the number-one ranked school in the nation. They have skill, size, speed, and talent and are well-coached with former NHLer Jay Pandolfo behind the bench.

The hype at the beginning of the season was followed by the trials and tribulations that come when every team you play is trying to knock off number one.

BU began the year with a win but saw three consecutive losses to follow. Those losses included an exhibition game against the United States National Team Development Program’s U18 club.

Early in the season, it was gut-check time for a team that quickly slid out of the number-one spot in the rankings.

“From the outside, it looks like tough times, but it's been great for our team,” said Celebrini. "Obviously, you want to have a perfect season, but that's never how it is going to go.”

“Early on, when we were trying to gel with so many new guys, we had a little learning curve. That has honestly helped us so much in the end because we've learned from those adversities and grown from those adversities and now, we are a well-oiled machine going into the final stretch, which is what we've made it to be. There are a few championship games that we want back. But that just makes us even hungrier for this one.”

It took some time for each of the Canucks’ prospects to feel comfortable at BU.

No matter how well the Brooks Bandits of the AJHL can prepare you for college hockey, you still need to be able to experience it to fully grasp what this level of hockey demands from you. Celebrini played on a 2023-24 Bandits team that went 41-4 and outscored their opponents by a 242-87 count. He spoke about the BU group needing some time to discover their self-confidence and how finding their swagger was a crucial moment for the group.

“We have such a talented team where every player can make a difference. It really was one of those things where once we believed that we had that talent, we felt like we couldn't be beaten and that's how it went for that last stretch. The biggest difference is that we've really found that identity and that swagger,” Celebrini said.

On the other hand, Willander was coming over to North America for the first time and had a lot on his plate as he had to adjust to a new brand of hockey that was far from what he experienced in Sweden while playing in the J20 circuit last year.

“I think my transition has been pretty smooth into college hockey. I feel comfortable now,” said Willander. “It’s been a bit of a switch just adjusting to the systems in North America. Getting used to the way that the game is played over here has been one of my main focuses. I am trying to be effective in playing how the team wants me to play, I feel me and others in the group have bought into that and that is why we’re having success.”

With both freshmen making substantial changes in their young lives, having the support of each other has been beneficial for their development at the NCAA level.

Celebrini and Willander are best friends at BU and that relationship began at the Vancouver Canucks' development camp in the summer of 2023.

“Development camp really sparked our friendship before coming to BU,” said Celebrini. “Tom has been my closest friend here and we have been there for each other through the ups and downs of the season. He is someone I can rely on and it's really cool to be a part of the Canucks organization with someone like Tom who has the same goals. Hopefully, we will play together for many years to come.”

Boston University provides excellent facilities for the Canucks’ prospects to develop their game. There is open ice available for the players around the clock and their support in the weight room is top-notch.

Both prospects agree it is great to have the facilities and support, but it is about the work you are willing to put in.

“At BU, there are no limits to how you can develop and how much work you can do, so, I think it’s what you make of the ice time,” said Willander. “The facilities are always open and always good to go for us players. It’s just up to us to work and that helps.”

“It is such a professional organization, and they have every resource available for us to get better,” said Celebrini. “Like Tom said, it is about what you do yourself and, and your interior drive and motivation to maximize those resources.”

The Terriers finished the season with a 28-9-2 record and went 18-4-2 in conference play. They went into the playoffs as the second seed in the NCAA and only have their rival Boston College ahead of them.

There have been some tremendous battles between BU and BC this season and both Boston schools are in the Frozen Four this coming weekend. BC has won three of the four matchups this season including the Hockey East Championship. But BU took down BC in the all-important Beanpot tournament.

Denver and Michigan join BU and BC as the four schools in this year’s Frozen Four. Boston University will face Denver at 2 pm PT on Thursday and then Michigan battles with Boston College at 5:30 pm PT.

The final will take place on Saturday, April 13 at 2 pm PT.