By Steve Petrick
Hockey captain Kirby Tokarski said goodbye last week to the team to which he’s devoted four and a half years of his life.
The fourth-year hospitality and tourism management student left the school a few credits short of graduation on Saturday after accepting an offer to play pro with the Greenville (South Carolina) Grrrowl of the East Coast Hockey League.
He had been looking for a professional club since being put on academic suspension for failing a class last semester.
By appealing the grade, Tokarski, 24, of Niagra Falls, was allowed to play in the Rams’ Jan. 6 game against the Brock Badgers, an embarrassing 10-3 loss in front of a TV audience.
The Rams’ 7-1 loss to the U of T Varsity Blues on Friday would likely have been his last, but after reaching an agreement with the Grrrowl on Thursday, Tokarski elected to not play. Injuring himself would mean losing a contract he says will pay him about $600 Canadian per week plus rent.
“I need money,” he said from the stands in Varsity Arena Friday. “What better way for me to make money than playing hockey. It’s a great opportunity for me.”
Tokarski, who’s described by teammates and coaches as a leader and the team’s most skilled centre, insisted he wasn’t leaving because he was frustrated with the team’s dismal 2-12-0 record.
“I was here for the long run if I was in school,” he said. “The only reason I’m leaving is for financial reasons. If I was that type of person, I would have left three years ago.”
Before joining the Rams in 1996, Tokarski played a year with the Ontario Hockey League’s Niagra Falls Thunder and spent two seasons after that with the Ontario Provincial Junior A Hockey League’s Hamilton Kilty Bees.
In each year with Ryerson he’s been one of the team’s top scorers. Last season he notched six goals and 11 assists for 17 points, making him fifth among Rams scorers.
More impressive than his statistics is the fact he was an important part of the team’s power-play and penalty-killing units. His work helped the Rams to a 9-16-1 record in 1999-2000 — their best in Tokarski’s four years — and earned him a spot on the OUA all-star team.
Since then, Tokarski has kept his scoring up, but the team has taken a nosedive.
Although he was averaging a point a game before departing, the Rams were saddled in the basement of the four-team OUa Mid-West Division, eight points behind the Badgers, who hold the final playoff position.
They’ve surrendered a league-high 78 goals and scored a league-low 35.
And Tokarski blames the season partly on the athletic department’s lack of success in finding a proper practice facility.
After the ice was taken out of Maple Leaf Gardens, the Rams were forced to move some practices to nearby Moss Park Arena. But since their time is slotted in the afternoon, not all players are able to attend.
In addition, the rink is smaller than the Rams’ base for home games, St. Michael’s Arena. As a result, the team often gets fatigued after two periods and close games turn into lopsided losses.
“This team’s got great potential in the future,” Tokarski said. “But the athletic department and the university have to decide to put some money into the athletic programs and perhaps start thinking of a better practice facility than Moss Park.
“If they can do that there’s great potential, not just for hockey but for every program. But if you’re content with having teams lose don’t feel disappointed when you put a hockey team on TV and they lose.”
On Friday, it didn’t seem the Rams’ season was going to take a swing for the better. After giving up two first-period goals, the team trailed 5-1 after two periods, before losing by six.
“I just want this program to get better,” Tokarski said as the time clock wound down in the third period. “It frustrates the hell out of me to see what goes on. We built this team up. Last year we had a good season. But we shouldn’t have taken a step backwards. Hopefully, next year we can bring things up to where it was the last couple years.”