By Daniel Rocchi
Graham Wise has been a head coach in the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) men’s hockey league for almost three decades. With a résumé that includes two league championships and a pair of national titles, he knows what it takes to make his Ryerson Rams winners.
“We have to be ready right off of the bat,” Wise said. “We have to come out and understand that you have to work hard right from the get-go through 28 games to be successful.”
Last season, the Rams struggled with consistency. They opened their season with a 2-3 record before rebounding to win seven of the next 10 games. But that dominance trailed off into a 3-7 slump. The team bookended its season with another 2-3 record, including three straight losses to close out the year. Ryerson finished fourth in the OUA West with a 14-12-1 record, but the Rams were unable to take advantage of home ice in its first-round matchup against the Toronto Varsity Blues. Ryerson’s arch-rival stole the series opener at the Mattamy Athletic Centre and eliminated the Rams in two games.
“If we start right from in goal, we’re pretty solid there,” said Wise. “We’ve also got a [good] core of defencemen returning and good prospects coming in that make it pretty solid back there. I think, from the back end, we should be able to be a pretty good team defensively, and we should be able to respond well up front.”
The most drastic changes will come in net. Troy Passingham started all 27 games for Ryerson last season, leading the league in games played, minutes and saves. But in his fifth season with the team, Passingham will be one of three goalies sharing the workload, along with first-years Barrick Brodie and Taylor Dupuis.
“All three of us have one job, to stop the puck,” said Dupuis. “I know it’s cliché, but defense wins championships.
Dupuis will be playing behind a strong defensive corps. Alex Basso enters his second season with the Rams after putting up 27 points, good for fourth in team scoring. His 24 assists were the fourth-most in the OUA. Third-year blue-liner Keevin Cutting won an OHL Championship with Owen Sound in 2011 and attended a training camp with the Florida Panthers last season, while fifth-year Brian Birkhoff is a former OUA-East Rookie All-Star. Newcomers Luke Mercer (Niagra) and Brandon Devlin (Mississauga) are also veterans of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). This will solidify the blueline as one of Ryerson’s strengths.
The focus on defense is well timed. For the second straight year, the Rams will be without their leading scorer from the previous season. After Jamie Wise left Ryerson to join the Central Hockey League’s Quad City Mallards prior to the start of last season, second-year left winger Domenic Alberga departed the Rams for the Greenville Swamp Rabbits of the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) this off-season.
Alberga’s departure leaves a large offensive gap to fill. He tied for most goals in the league with 18 and finished the season with a team-high 31 points, good for 11th in the league.
But as crucial as a strong start to the season may be, the Rams will have their hands full building early momentum. A 5-2 win against the York Lions on Alumni Weekend gave Ryerson a 2-2-1 record to round out the preseason. The first week of regular season action will see the Rams play three games in six days as to open the season at home with back-to-back games against Concordia and UQTR before hosting the defending OUA champions Guelph Gryphons.
Wise believes the Rams best response is to score by committee. Last season, third-year centre Kyle Blaney and fifth-year right winger Mitch Gallant tied for second on the team behind Alberga with 28 points. Team captain and fourth-year centre Michael Fine and third-year right winger Daniel Clairmont will both be looking to build on seasons that saw them break the 20-point plateau.
But Wise doesn’t think that means the Rams can’t have the start, and the season, that they want.
“You have to be prepared to play those games and you have to bring your A game every single time,” Wise said. “I think we’re definitely capable of doing that this season.”