By Alex Guibord
At the beginning of the season, men’s hockey coach Mick Mitrovic was confident the Rams would make the playoffs — so much so that he put his job on the line by saying to the Eyeopener he would offer his resignation if they didn’t.
Instead of playoffs, the team ended the regular season 1-21-1 and finished last place in Ontario.
“It’s like a train’s been derailed and we’re trying to get it back on track,” said Mitrovic. “You can’t have high morale with loss, after loss, after loss.”
He described his team’s performances in the last two back-to-back losses against Toronto as lackluster, citing inconsistent focus on and off the ice, frequent penalties, injuries, and suspensions as reoccurring, season-long problems. “(Players) should be asking themselves key questions — How is my conduct? How is my behaviour? They would rather deflect than reflect,” said Mitrovic, adding the team is accustomed to playing at a high level individually, just not as a team.
“We control the coaching. We don’t control the effort,” he added.
The Rams started the season as the league’s youngest team with 12 rookies scouted from minor leagues. It was Mitrovic’s first full year as head coach and he hoped the acquisitions would make the team an offensive threat. In the 23-game season, the Rams had 40 goals-for (less than 2 goals a game) and 159 goals-against.
The team finished the season with 14 skaters on ice Feb. 11, with an 11-1 loss at Varsity Arena.
Assistant captain Chris Sutton scored the only goal for Ryerson at 3:34 into the second period on a power play. Grant Buckley, a second-year defenceman from Stouffville, was watching the final game from behind the bench because of a bad shoulder.
He said the team does not lack the desire to win games. Instead, he feels the approach to facilitate good chemistry on ice is not working. “It’s been a mess. We have no systems on ice, so no wins or chemistry.” Forward Adrian Bennett, one of the rookies added to the team in September, agreed.
“It’s hard going into every day and dealing with the same problems. “Rather than fixing the problem, we don’t get a second chance,” he said, describing the coaching staff’s “try something new” approach, which also includes frequent line changes.
Mitrovic honoured his pre-season promise and left Ryerson athletic director Dave Dubois with the decision to either renew or terminate his services within the program. “I did offer my resignation, but I never said I would quit,” Mitrovic said. However, Dubois said he has no intention of terminating Mitrovic or the team, assuring his full support and the resources of his department. Among those resources is George Bell Arena, which will remain the team’s “number one arena,” Mitrovic said.
The arena is about a 45-minute commute from campus. The team amounts to 10 per cent of the Sports and Recreation budget according to Dubois. Still, with poor attendance generating low revenues, the program will remain disadvantaged compared to top-tier teams in the OUA. “Look at Western, Lakehead…their roster is full of Ontario Hockey League (OHL) players — they’re all OHL,” Dubois said, explaining more money would help draw the best athletes.
He suggested a possible increase in the sports and recreation tuition fee, but admits it’s unlikely after students voted against it in a referendum last year. Mitrovic said he is already actively recruiting new prospects from minor leagues such as the OHL and Ontario Hockey Association in hopes of creating a winning dynamic.
The coach makes all the final roster decisions. Mitrovic ranks academic proficiency as the top quality he is looking for in players. “(Players) who have a sound foundation academically are in it for the long haul,” he said. “They are easier to coach.”
The team lost players throughout this season because of academic suspension. Seventeen prospective players, Mitrovic said, are on the “negotiation list.” He has already secured two goalies — one with NCAA experience and the other from the OHL. Also, he hopes to begin the season with 10 or 11 forwards, instead of just five. “By far, the program would improve if we could get four or five more (players like) Kevin Krasnowski,” Mitrovic said, referring to the rookie forward who ended the season second on the team in offensive points.
Mitrovic said only seven to 10 senior players will be returning next season. He confirmed four senior players will not be invited back to play next season, but wouldn’t say who. “They are welcome to try-out again, but that would be futile,” he said. His goal is to have a roster ranging from 25 to 27 players, instead of the roughly 20 players left at this year’s end. Mitrovic remains optimistic that next season the team will climb up from the basement of the OUA standings.
“I won’t make (playoff) predictions again, but I can say the team will improve.”
Buckley wants to believe him. “It’s nice to hear management say next year looks good; but, I was told this year was supposed to be good, too.”
In two weeks Mitrovic said he will reveal the final team roster. “I know who will be playing, but I’m not saying,” he said.