Previewing the OUA West in Men’s Hockey

TORONTO, ON – If there’s one thing that stands out about the new-look OUA West, it is a long trip to Thunder Bay to face the Lakehead Thunderwolves. Aside from the one lengthy haul, the rest of the four teams will all be within comfortable bus and walking distance of each other. Tightly packed schools geographically, but two teams will likely distance themselves from the pack. 

The 2021 OUA Men’s hockey season looks a little bit different than in years past. Teams will only play 20 games, all within their division, down from the usual 28-game schedule. In addition, the divisional alignment has also shifted to limit travel, with men’s hockey splitting into four divisions from the previous two. 

While there are a few differences, hockey returns to Ontario University Athletics for the first time since March 7, 2020, and every team has their eyes on the Queen’s Cup. 

Brock Badgers

Adam Berg
(Brock Badgers)

Under new leadership, the Brock Badgers will be an intriguing team to watch this season. With Marty Williamson heading to the OHL’s Barrie Colts in the offseason, Kevin Forrest, a former Windsor Lancers player, will lead the Badgers. 

While the off-year hit some teams hard, the Badgers come out relatively unscathed and will have a strong roster in 2021. 2019-20 leading scorer Christian Ghriny returns to the lineup, while 2017 Calgary Flames draft pick D’Artagnan Joly enters his freshman season.

The Badgers dipped into the GOJHL’s Caledonia Corvairs heading into this season, bringing in goaltender Aiden Hughes, Cole Tymkin and Tyler Burnie. Although the three played in the GOJHL, they all spent time in the OHL throughout their junior careers. In a bit of a different path, Brock Sports Management student and former Guelph Storm forward Jacob Roach will play for the Badgers this season, after already studying at the school for two years.

Joly has a chance to drive the Badgers this season, already adjusting to the team in 2020-21, being 22 years old and coming off a successful final junior season in the QMJHL. Although injuries prevented him from playing in the Flames Young Stars prospect tournament, he was highly regarded in their system at one point. The Nation Network ranked Joly as Calgary’s 14th best prospect in the summer of 2018. 

The season will be an interesting one for the Badgers, but with returning stalwarts on the back end and a strong recruiting class, they should be right in the mix come playoff time.

Player to watch: D’Artegan Joly

Lakehead Thunderwolves

After falling to Ryerson in the opening round of the 2020 Queen’s Cup Playoffs, the Lakehead Thunderwolves are looking to take a step further in 2021-22; however, they will be hard-pressed to do so. I have the Thunderwolves missing the playoffs and finishing last in the division. While they have added former WHL forward Tyler Ho and others, they have lost leading scorers Daniel Del Poggio, Tomas Stustal, who have moved on to pro careers. 

The Thunderwolves will be a young team, and they are not at the bottom of the OUA; however, their divisional foes feature two of Canada’s best teams in Toronto and Ryerson and a team on the rise in York. 

Player to watch: Kyle Auger

Ryerson Rams

Jesse Barwell (Ryerson Rams)

If the OUA season had started in August, the Ryerson Rams could have been in the conversation for a U CUP title. Since then, the downtown Toronto school has lost forwards Matt Santos and Devon Paliani, two players who had been critical to past success. 

Although the Rams will be missing their all-time leading scorer, Matt Mistele, who graduated in 2020, they have brought in one of the OUA’s top recruiting classes. Jeremiah Addison, a former Montreal Canadiens prospect, comes in after four years at StFX, while goaltender Luke Peressini joins the Rams for a masters degree. Peressini backstopped Western to the U CUP semi-finals in 2020, dispatching the Rams with stellar goaltending along the way. 

The top-line has clicked so far in the preseason, buoyed by third-year forward Dominic Comisso, who is set to play his first full season after suffering an injury five games into 2019-20. Playing on the top-line with Jacob Kamps and Hayden McCool, Head Coach Jonny Duco has a mic of experience and skill. Also coming into the team is McGill Redbirds grad Michael Crammarosa, who will add scoring to Ryerson’s top-6, after three consecutive 20+ point years in Montreal.

Looking farther down the lineup, the Rams will likely see rookie production from former OJHL leading goalscorer Kyle Bollers, who had 86 points with the Brantford 99ers in 2019-20, as well as QMJHL grad Kevin Gursoy.

With many stars graduating this year, and the likes of Addison and Peressini on one-and-done degrees, this is a must-win season for the Rams, and their recruiting has shown that. 

Player to watch: Jeremiah Addison

Toronto Varsity Blues

Joey Manchurek and David Thomson (Seyran Mammadov/Varsity Blues)

Much like another hockey team with “Toronto” in its name, the Toronto Varsity Blues just want to get to the playoffs. After losing to the eighth-seeded Western Mustangs in 2020, the experienced Varsity Blues group has their sights set on a U CUP title in 2021-22. 

Led by Head Coach Ryan Medel, the Varsity Blues will lean on veteran experience this season, especially 2019-20 OUA Male Athlete of the Year David Thomson and linemate Joey Manchurek in the forward group. At the back, former Toronto Maple Leaf’s goaltender and fourth-year student Alex Bishop will look to build on a .922 save percentage from 2019-20. 

While the veterans will lead the team, the Varsity Blues have added former London Knight Billy Moskal, who is coming off a brief AHL stint with the Clevland Monsters. Four OUA schools pursued Moskal, before U of T secured his commitment, and he will bring elite experience and scoring to an already deep Toronto team. He has spent time in NHL camps, participating with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets. 

Although not from the OHL,  keep your eyes on freshmen Ben Woodhouse and Ben Dirvin, coming from Junior A leagues. While they might not have the caché of the CHL recruits, the Varsity Blues do an excellent job of finding diamonds from Junior A. Thomson, Kyle Clarke and several other top U of T players who have come from outside major junior, making the pair’s potential higher than expected. 

With several players looking towards graduation, or the pro game next season, this is a boom or bust year for Ryan Medel and the Varsity Blues.

Player to watch: Joey Manchurek

York Lions

Coming off a disappointing season in 2019-20, the York Lions will be a much-improved team when they hit the ice in 2020-21. Head Coach Russ Herrington knows what it takes to lead a group to a championship, having won the 2018 Queen’s Cup, and his Lions team looks well on the way to doing so at some point in the next four years. 

After a successful rookie season returning forward, Brayden Browne is ready to take the next step this season. Browne led all Lions rookies with 16 points in 2019-20, and being two years older; he could make a jump to become a top forward in the OUA. 

The Lions will have to adjust to life without stalwart defenceman Peter de Coppi, who stepped up his game in 2019-20 and forward Scott Feser, who had planned to play for Ryerson in 2020-21. Replacing them, Sal Filice, Morgan Messenger and many more, however, is a talented group of recruits. 

Forward Owen Gilhula heads to Canlan Ice Centre, fresh off a season with the MHL’s Summerside Capitals, where he scored 27 points in 21 games. While Gilhula spent time with the Sudbury Wolves before 2020-21, he will be joined by fellow OHL grads Lucas Theriault, CJ Clarke, among others. On the blueline, former Queen’s Gaels defenceman Will Brown comes in, bringing Queen’s Cup pedigree to the Lions having won the OUA title with the Gaels in 2019.

In goal, there will likely be a split of former Kingston Frontenac Brendan Bonello and second-year goalie Cole Ceci. Although neither has played many minutes in the preseason, with Dalton Ewing taking most minutes, the Bonello-Ceci duo is expected to take most of the 20 regular-season.

Player to watch: CJ Clarke

OUA West Predictions:

  1. Toronto Varsity Blues
  2. Ryerson Rams
  3. York Lions
  4. Brock Badgers
  5. Lakehead Thunderwolves

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