By Daniel Rocchi
Graham Wise thought long and hard about returning for an 11th season as the head coach of Ryerson’s men’s hockey team.
His decision not to do so marks the end of an era.
On Thursday, Ryerson Athletics announced the retirement of one of the sport’s most decorated bench bosses and the man who remoulded a diminished program into a perennial playoff contender.
On September 1, when Wise’s retirement becomes effective, the longest coaching career in the history of CIS men’s hockey will come to an end.
Wise will turn 65 in August. After 35 seasons behind the bench, 29 of those as a head coach, the milestone was a catalyst for him to ponder life beyond coaching.
“You give these things a lot of thought, and so I feel happy with my decision,” said Wise. “Maybe in the back of your mind, you’re coming up to that magic number and you’re thinking about it – ‘what am I going to do in that type of situation?’.”
“There are obviously lots of factors that go into it, but I just felt the time was right.”
He leaves behind one of the most impressive legacies that CIS hockey has ever witnessed.
After winning a national championship as a player with the University of Toronto Varsity Blues in 1976, Wise joined the coaching staff at York University in 1981 while completing his master’s degree in kinesiology. He became an assistant after asking if he could help with the program.
Wise was still an assistant when York, then known as the Yeomen, won their first national championship in 1985.
In 1987, Wise was named the head coach of the Yeomen, and led the team to consecutive national titles during the 1987-88 and 1988-89 seasons.
Although York would not win another national championship under Wise, they were the OUA champions in 2004 before Wise joined Ryerson as the 14th head coach in Rams history in August 2006.
“Leaving York, I felt at that time in my life I needed a change, I needed to do something different, and I needed to go somewhere else,” Wise said. “I was fortunate enough to get hired at Ryerson, and it’s been a great 10 years that I’ve enjoyed.”
When Wise was hired, Ryerson’s men’s hockey program was in serious need of rejuvenation, having won a total of just five games in the three seasons before Wise’s arrival.
Under Wise, the Rams’ regular-season records slowly improved, culminating in a berth in the OUA playoffs in 2009-2010, his fourth season with the team. It was the Rams’ first playoff appearance in seven seasons, and Wise was named the OUA East Coach of the Year.
Ryerson’s first-round opponent was none other than archrival U of T, the same school where Wise played on a national title-winning team.
The Varsity Blues were heavy favourites in the series, but Ryerson took game one with a shocking 6-0 victory at U of T’s Varsity Arena. Playing their second game in as many nights, the Rams won game two 3-1 at the old George Bell Arena to sweep Toronto, winning a playoff series for the first time since 2002.
Six years later, that series remains on of one of Wise’s favourite moments with the Rams.
“We were a struggling, fledging team and we made the playoffs and beat Toronto out,” recalls Wise. “I felt we were going in the right direction at that point.”
But that was as far as Ryerson would get that season, bowing out in two games in the OUA East semi-final to UQTR.
The next year, the Rams missed the playoffs, finishing 15th in the 16-team league, despite earning the first CIS weekly Top 10 ranking in team history early in the season.
Since that disappointing 2010-2011 campaign, Ryerson has never missed the playoffs.
In 2011-2012, the Rams posted their first winning record (13-12-1) in 23 years. The 2012-2013 season marked their first consecutive playoff-qualifying seasons since the 1987-88 and 1988-89 campaigns, the same years that Wise and the Yeomen won back-to-back national championships.
Ryerson was eliminated in the first round by UQTR in both 2012 and 2013.
2013-2014 saw the Rams post a 17-11 record to finish third in the OUA West, the program’s best-ever regular-season result. But the season had its difficulties as well.
In November, the team was suspended for seven days for drinking alcohol during an October road trip to the United States for exhibition games against Princeton University. It was a violation of Ryerson’s student athlete policy. The team forfeited two games, while Wise was suspended for four games and assistant coach Lawrence Smith was relieved of his duties.
But Wise didn’t let the controversy derail his team’s season, nor distract them from their goals.
“Life is about ups and downs,” said Wise. “It’s how you come out of them and the way you look at them and the way you face them.”
“[We] just wanted to continue representing Ryerson, and doing it in a positive manner.
In the ten games following their forfeited contests, the Rams went 9-1-0, en route to another playoff appearance.
With a three-game round one victory over Brock University, Ryerson advanced to the conference semi-finals where they lost in two games to the Lakehead Thunderbirds. Wise was named the OUA West Coach of the Year for his team’s historic regular season and Ryerson’s second semi-final appearance in five seasons.
The Rams were swept by U of T in the first round of the playoffs the following season.
Last year, in Wise’s 10th and final season behind the Ryerson bench, the Rams finished sixth in the 10-team OUA West with a 14-13-1 record, qualifying for the playoffs for the fifth year in a row.
Ryerson swept the Waterloo Warriors in the first round, advancing to the OUA West semi-finals for the second time in three seasons to face the Guelph Gryphons. After losing game one on the road, the Rams won a thrilling 2-1 overtime victory on home ice to stave off elimination.
The Gryphons eliminated Ryerson with a decisive 11-3 victory in Guelph, but the series marked the Rams’ first-ever win in an OUA semi-final and their deepest run in an OUA postseason.
Despite the team’s historic achievements under his leadership, Wise refuses to take all the credit.
“The one thing is, it’s not one person doing it,” he said. “I had good assistant coaches – Lawrence Smith, Johnny Duco, Nathaniel Brooks – and they’re all part of the building process when you take over a team. I think also with the university getting the Mattamy Athletic Centre, that really helped us.
“It’s a whole network of people that were instrumental in building the program to where it is today.”
After nearly six decades playing and coaching the game, Wise is looking forward to shifting his focus, and devoting more time to some of his other passions.
“One of the hobbies I’ve had for a number of years is refinishing antiques,” Wise explained. “I’m fortunate enough that I have a small carriage house on our lot, and I’ve pretty well got that thing filled to the rafters with projects to do, so I think I’ll be getting into that and enjoying it.”
With a 407-387-55 record (OUA regular season, OUA playoff and CIS University Cup games), Wise retires as the second-winningest coach in CIS history after the University of Saskatchewan’s Dave Adolph. He won national championships as a player, an assistant coach and as a head coach, and was a five-time OUA Coach of the year.
But for all his personal accolades and the success his teams enjoyed, it isn’t his hockey achievements, or even those of his players, that Wise is most proud of.
“The one thing that I enjoyed about the job was the age category that I dealt with, 19-25 year olds,” said Wise. “What makes me proud is how successful they’ve all been; the majority of them have graduated, the majority of them are off, married, outreaching to their community and giving back.
“I’m just proud of every athlete I’ve coached, because they gave me lots of good memories.”
For Ryerson and York hockey fans, that’s the same reason they should be proud of Graham Wise as he rides off into the sunset.