Vancouver, BC- It’s an old adage, “the process is more important than the product,” but in U SPORTS men’s hockey, that product is supposed to be a winning team, and the process has to make that happen.
Where does the process begin? Recruiting.
For Head Coach Patrick Grandmaître and the Ottawa Gee-Gee’s men’s hockey program, recruiting challenges have been aplenty.
Six years ago, the University of Ottawa disbanded the hockey program after multiple members of the team were accused of sexual assault. It left the school without any staff or team until the university hired Grandmaître to rebuild the Gee-Gees.
The task of rebuilding was as tumultuous as they come. The “to-do list” was short, yet daunting. Put together an entire roster and coaching staff with the aim to compete as fast as possible.
“I was really fortunate they hired me a year before we hit the ice,” says Grandmaître. “It gave me the chance to spend the whole year recruiting, going to the rinks, getting to know the kids.”
Even though he got the chance to scout more than he would have if he were also coaching a team at the same time, it was a challenge to attract players to a school team that had next to nothing to sell. Speaking of the challenges, Grandmaître said, “I lost track of the rejections we got, it was very difficult to bring guys in that year.”
By the time puck-drop came in the fall of 2016, Grandmaitre had put together the Gee-Gees roster. It was young and raw, and nobody knew how well they would perform in their first year. Eventually, everything began to click, the project was working.
In the first year, with an average age of 22-years-old, the Gee-Gees finished fifth in the OUA East Conference before pushing the Queen’s Gaels to the brink of elimination in the playoffs. Nobody expected the new team to have such success, their performances created ripples throughout OUA hockey.
“There was a lot of excitement the first year, and we turned that into good performances and eventually the playoffs.”
With the team assembled, most of the players were set to graduate as a massive class in 2020. While this left the Gee-Gees with near-perfect consistency and opportunity to grow over five years, it also meant that the task of recruiting was substantially easier for half a decade.
As the team matured, the final two years built up a lot of championship hope. In 2018-19, the team was exquisite in the regular season, but couldn’t make a go of it in the playoffs. The early playoff exits were not welcomed, but ahead of the final year, Grandmaître saw the positives, “When we got back in the fall, we had the playoffs on our minds all year, we had success in the regular season, but we thought we could win the Queen’s Cup.”
The Gee-Gees once again did well in the 2020 regular season, navigating their way through the playoffs, and ending up in the Queen’s Cup Final, where they fell to the Guelph Gryphons in triple-overtime. When the puck from Guelph’s Ted Nichols’ shot hit the back of the net, the disappointment on the Ottawa faces was astoundingly evident. “There was a real disappointment, we had a real breakaway in overtime and chances to win. It would have been nice to see our seniors win the title, but I’m proud of them.”
While the silver medals around their necks reminded them of a near title, the entire season had another headache. Once again, Grandmaitre and co. had to revert to step one of the process, finding 15 new recruits to replenish the now graduated roster.
The recruiting process was significantly different this time around. The Gee-Gees had an established base of success and were not tarnished by past reputation, it made the uOttawa a much more attractive destination for players.
Although things were more in Ottawa’s favour when it came to getting the players they wanted, bringing in the large group of replenishments was a lot different than it was six years prior.
In Year One of the re-launched program, Grandmaître had all the time in the world to build relationships with players, this time though he had a team to take care of. “We were trying to win a championship, trying to recruit a big group was very different,” said the Gee-Gees coach. “But we had a larger group and managed to get things done before the [COVID-19] in-person recruiting restrictions went in.”
Looking back on the first full eligibility cycle, Grandmaître is proud of what his initial recruits accomplished, even though they didn’t get their name on the Queen’s Cup. The penultimate product never came, but the small rewards and experience through the process were worth every drop of sweat and blood.
Grandmaître, now a veteran U SPORTS head coach, enters his second five-year cycle as the coach of the Gee-Gees, and although there will be few familiar faces when the Gee-Gees next play, the process of winning hasn’t changed but only developed.
Cover Photo: Jean Levac