TORONTO, ON – The OUA men’s hockey season starts slightly earlier in 2023-24, yet it comes with some added weight.
While the OUA often has three teams competing at the U SPORTS University Cup, the Toronto Metropolitan University Bold are hosting the 2024 edition of the tournament and get an automatic berth as host.
With that, only two OUA teams can play their way into the nationals, making every game and seeding all the more critical for the upcoming season.
The Guelph Gryphons and Nipissing Lakers get things started a couple weeks early in the regular season on September 23rd, before the rest of their conference counterparts drop the puck on their primary schedules in October.
Also adding intrigue to this season is an adjusted playoff system, slight re-alignment, and the return of intra-division play.
The playoff system:
On Feb. 11, a play-in game will hit the ice between the West Division’s No. 6 and No. 7 seed. The winner of that game will then join the best-of-three opening-round matchups taking place from Feb. 12-18. Those series will see the No. 3 seeds play the lowest seeds (i.e., No. 6 seed in the East and play-in winner in the West), respectively, while the fourth and fifth-ranked teams will also face off.
From there, the series victors will advance to play the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds, respectively, each of whom receive byes in the opening round of play. Those best-of-three quarter-finals will run from Feb. 19-2, with winners then advancing to the semifinal series from Feb. 26 – March 3.
Division winners then play for the 112th Queen’s Cup
Nipissing Lakers switch to OUA West division, while the York Lions shift to OUA East
With the nuts and bolts of the season out of the way, 49 Sports looks at each of the teams in the OUA West for 2023-24.
Laurier Golden Hawks
The Laurier Golden Hawks have a challenge this season, which they look to live up to. After coming in as a head coach late in the summer of 2022, Kevin Forrest has been able to spend a year with the Laurier group and also took on his own recruiting with the program for the first time.
After a year that saw them finish sixth in the OUA West with a record of 13-13-1, the Golden Hawks have higher potential this season and will hope to build off last year’s first-round playoff exit against the Brock Badgers.
Last year’s leading scorer, Sam Rhodes, enters his second season with the program and will once again hope to lead the group and build upon his 10 goals and 21 points from 2022-23. However, he will need more help, likely aided by incoming first-year Callum Chisholm, a 6-foot-5 left defenseman with offensive upside, scoring 23 points in his final OHL season with the Barrie Colts.
In net, Christian Propp will look to settle in from the season’s start, taking on his second season between the pipes after playing to a .908 save percentage in 24 games last season — among the lower third of OUA goaltenders.
While much of the play could be elevated for Laurier, maintaining their prowess on special teams within the division will also be critical, as Forrest’s team had a top-three powerplay (20.4 percent) and penalty kill (86.7 percent) in 2022-23.
It will be a testing season for the Golden Hawks, but it presents the most potential in several years.
Key player: Christian Propp
The OUA darling of the last several years, the Brock Badgers are among sleeper picks for the OUA Queen’s Cup this season, looking to build off a 2022-23 campaign that saw them finish just a win short of the top of the OUA West.
Like the Golden Hawks, the Badgers feature one of the fresher faces in OUA coaching as TJ Manstersky looks to bring Brock within medal contention in just his second season behind the Badgers’ bench.
While the team loses secondary scorer Adam Berg, they will turn to now third-year forward Jacob Roach, who has gotten up to speed nicely in the OUA after missing his final junior season in the OHL with the Kingston Frontenacs due to COVID-19.
The Brooklin, Ont. native had an offensive explosion in his second season, scoring 10 goals and 32 points in 26 regular season games while keeping his penalty minutes low despite playing with a particular vigour.
It’s also a hefty recruiting class for Brock, with team GM Michael Raskin bringing in eight players, including defenceman Holden Rogers, who couldn’t carve out much playing time through his first and only season with the TMU Bold.
The Badgers will hope to maintain their OUA West-leading powerplay of 25.3 percent from 2022-23 while leaning on younger players to take more significant minutes. Brock will also adjust to a full season of Mario Peccia in net after he posted a 904 save percentage in 13 games last season before midseason addition Roman Basran took up the starting role.
For Brock, despite the changes, a Queen’s Cup remains the goal, and to do it, they’ll have to get all they can out of a largely youthful group.
Key player: Jacob Roach
Starting their season earlier than any other team in the OUA West, the Gryphons are entering a new era of hockey at the University of Guelph. This year, they take the ice with a new head coach, Josh Dixon, who comes in after Shawn Camp retired after 16 seasons in the role.
Dickson comes into the job with over 23 years in the Canadian hockey system as a coach and developer, initially working with the Carleton Ravens from 2002 to 2006 as an assistant coach before taking on a similar position with the Calgary Dinos and then collegiate-level MRU Cougars. Now, he comes to Guelph after two seasons as an assistant coach with the WHL’s Prince George Cougars.
The new coach ushers in a new cycle for the Gryphons, as all of the 2019 Queen’s Cup championship team has graduated, leaving a largely inexperienced core, but one that likely learned from missing the playoffs by a single point last season.
Heading into his second season, look for Anthony Tabak to take another step in his development after scoring eight goals and 22 points as a rookie, likely having to raise his goal total with last year’s leading goalscorer Zach Poirier no longer on the roster.
On the defensive side of the puck, Nathan Allensen will likely take on even more minutes after being a top-four defenceman last season, while Laim Ham and Jaxon Camp will also take on more prominent roles.
The first season under a new coach always offers some surprises, and for Guelph, the hope will be that it comes with winning. However, with many adjustments, there may be a learning period for the Gryphons on and off the ice.
Key player: Nathan Allensen
Coming off one of their best seasons in program history, the Lakehead Thunderwolves hope to make the Queen’s Cup final this season and clinch their spot at the TMU-hosted University Cup in the spring.
Although the Thunderwolves often don’t get the top recruits from the CHL, they have built a culture around their program that gets the best out of the student-athletes they secure, pushing them to heights unexpected at the first glance of the roster.
Last season, the Thunderwolves maintained their strong play throughout the campaign, winning the OUA West Division with a record of 18-6-2 while scoring a division-leading 103 goals in the process.
Head coach Andrew Wilkins will also have the leisure of a large returning core, buoyed by the additions of Maritime league defenceman Ed McNeil and OHL forward Nick DeGrazia, who comes off an experience with the Calgary Flames’ prospects camp in the summer.
DeGrazia, a local product, will look to start his OUA career on a high note, coming off a season with the Sudbury Wolves that saw him score 25 goals in 53 games. He comes into a Thunderwolves program that also welcomes back leading scorers Griffen Fox and Spencer Blackwell, who were among the OUA’s top scorers in 2022-23 with 27 and 26 points, respectively.
In net, Max Wright and Christian Cicigoi will look to maintain their split, which saw a team total save percentage of .914 through the regular season before Cicgoi posted a .941 in three playoff games.
The bronze medal game loss against the Concordia Stingers in spring 2023 still lingers over the Lakehead Thunderwolves but just adds vigour and another goal to the group that will hope to clinch a tougher ticket to the U CUP.
Key player: Spencer Blackwell
The Nipissing Lakers will hope to crack the OUA Playoffs this season after several years of struggles on the ice. However, they will be in tough with 11 new recruits this offseason, as they hope to set a new tone within the program.
Last season, head coach Mike McParland and the Lakers finished with the OUA’s worst record of 4-174, amassing just 13 points in the OUA East. While they switch over to play in the OUA West this season, things don’t get much easier, with strong programs still on the cards — and the lack of long-time bottom-feeder teams.
The Lakers finished last season with the most goals against, 112, and fewest goals scored with just 51. On the bright side, they have a refreshed young core and will test themselves against new opponents as they look to develop into a stronger team over the next few seasons.
Nipissing plays in the opening game of the OUA on Sept. 23, hosting the Guelph Gryphons in North Bay.
Key player: Devyn Mayea
Toronto Varsity Blues
It’s been a tough run for the Toronto Varsity Blues, once Canada’s preeminent men’s hockey program. However, there is hope for the group to return to contention in 2023-24, as head coach Ryan Medel looks to guide his team to improve from a 14-10-3 record last season, which saw them finish fifth in the OUA West.
Through the preseason, the Varsity Blues have appeared to be more mature, with younger players taking the reins of the program, such as Nick Wong, who scored two goals in exhibition play against the uOttawa Gee-Gees. Wong, among others, could be poised to take another step this season as he looks to boost his 2022-23 total of just two goals and six points.
Still, the key players for Toronto’s success will be last year’s leaders Cole Purboo, Owen Guy and Owen Robinson, a trio of forwards who all posted over eight goals and 20 points in 2022-23. At the same time, veteran defenceman Ryan Barbosa will continue to take control of the blueline from both ends of the ice, acting as a solid defenceman while contributing 16 assists last season.
Barbosa, who transferred from the Windsor Lancers two seasons ago, is proving to be one of the most undervalued players in the OUA, as he has two 18-assist seasons during his OUA time and will hope for a lengthy playoff run as a 25-year-old.
Tending the crease, Jett Alexander returns for his third season, having posted a .927 save percentage through 22 games last season while also earning some NHL minutes as an emergency backup with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The 2023-24 Varsity Blues will be defined by the group of players that can step up in the middle of the roster, athletes such as Wong, Eddie Yan, and at the top of the group Billy Moskal, who scored 16 points last season. Meanwhile, the group will hope their special teams can outdo their overall performance, potentially vaulting them higher in the standings.
It’s been a long run of early playoff exits and an even longer time since Toronto last appeared to be a true Queen’s Cup contender, a level they look to return to in 2023-24.
The TMU Bold want to win the Queen’s Cup and University Cup this season. For a program that has pushed all their chips into the middle of the table, there aren’t many other satisfactory options.
Head coach Johnny Duco and his staff have built an intricate roster this season, holding onto top players such as goaltender Kai Edmonds, defenders Elijah Roberts and Ryan Wells, as well as forwards Kyle Bollers and Chris Playfair.
Having completely turned the team over to that aforementioned core, the Bold will hope that Edmonds can maintain his OUA West-leading .934 save percentage and that Bollers can remain healthy while maintaining the form that saw him score 30 points in 18 games last season.
At the same time, the hefty recruiting class has solidified the group from a defensive and experience perspective, adding defenceman Cole Cameron and forward Zach Roberts from the Guelph Gryphons. Meanwhile, they’ve also plucked forward Danil Antropov from the UPEI Panthers, who took a run to the U CUP semifinals as hosts last season.
From experience within the program to the added contributors, the Bold are well equipped to take on the pressure of being U CUP hosts while also chasing a program-first Queen’s Cup, an achievement they’ve flirted with for the last half-decade.
Among their intriguing recruits, this season is Russian forward Daniil Grigorev, who comes over from the junior ranks in his home nation, where he won a Youth Olympic gold medal in 2020 and captured a title alongside top NHL prospects at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup, an annual summer junior tournament.
While Grigorev, 19, is a year younger than many rookies in Canadian university hockey, his ability to work the puck out of tight spaces and fire a quick shot on goal should frighten OUA opponents. However, the challenge for the Bold will be to create space for him, as he has appeared slightly through the preseason.
The Bold had a large recruiting class and lost several key offensive contributors since last season, but return with hopes of maintaining the OUA’s best penalty kill of 91 percent and making a run towards an OUA and U SPORTS Championship.
Key player: Kai Edmonds
To say the 2022-23 Waterloo Warriors had some learning experiences would be an understatement. Despite having now Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Daniel Walker for his final season, the Warriors struggled, amassing just six wins en route to finishing last in the OUA West.
This year, improvement is key, with the hopes of a potential playoff berth. Yet, without Walker and fellow top scorer and leader Jacob Casganette, it could prove another challenging year for the Warriors.
Fourth-year forward Chase Campbell will be the one leading the offensive charge this year, but Waterloo will need several other players to step in to replace their graduates, including Jack Phibbs, a now third-year who has shown glimpses of stardom through his first two seasons.
The Warriors have also added a few intriguing recruits, with defender Jordan Hendry joining from the Trail Smoke Eaters of the BCHL and Jesse Fishman continuing his career in the Kitchener-Waterloo area after playing with the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers.
Also among the 11 new recruits is goaltender Matt Onuska joins from the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires, potentially lofting that position.
After a struggling season, Waterloo will look for improvements this year, but a Queen’s Cup run may be out of their potential for 2023-24.
Key player: Brendan Bowie
After becoming the Cinderella story of U SPORTS in 2020, the Western Mustangs have struggled to contend for spots among OUA’s best. Even that year, they finished eighth in the regular season before a miraculous playoff run.
However, they laid a platform for growth last season, missing the playoffs on a tiebreaker late in the season. This year, head coach Clarke Singer will hope to lift his team back into the postseason, welcoming back much of the same crew.
While veteran and last year’s leading scorer Franco Sproviero has moved on, the Mustangs will look to forwards such as Shane Bultika and Andrew Bruder to lead the group this season, after they scored 19 and 11 points, respectively.
As well, Western has some of the more offensive defencemen in the conference, with the likes of Jake Gravelle returning for his second season after posting 28 points from the blue line, the highest among returning players.
Western has always been a team that has played with a defined style under Singer, and there is little reason to think they will abandon that heading into 2023-24.
Key player: Jake Gravelle
The Windsor Lancers impressed in the 2022-23 season, earning their way to the U CUP after winning the OUA West before falling to the UQTR Patriotes in the Queen’s Cup Final. While the Lancers struggled at the U CUP, falling 7-0 to the Alberta Golden Bears in the first round, they proved they could play at the national championship level through the season.
Head coach Kevin Hamlin will look to guide his group with momentum from last season into 2023-24, as they hope to make another run to nationals, where there is an opportunity to impress in front of a more favourable crowd in Ontario.
The Lancers were stout defensively all season, allowing 69 goals, the third least in the OUA West, while finishing second in the division on a tiebreaker with Lakehead, after posting an 18-6-3 record.
While leading scorer Anthony Stefano has left the program, the Lancers retain much of their core, including forward Mason Kohn, who could potentially improve on his seven goals and 20 points with added responsibilities this season. Additionally, Grant Spence could take on a greater role after scoring nine goals in his second season.
Among the recruits, former UNB Reds forward Ryan Roth stands out despite his struggles to amass significant playing time with the Atlantic Canadian powerhouse. At the same time, it could take an adjustment period for the 10 new recruits to get up to top speed.
One of Windsor’s strengths for several seasons, and a key role in their success last season, was goaltending, and they will once again turn to Nathan Torchia in the crease as the netminder looks to build on the last two seasons, which saw him post .933 and .936 save percentages, earning national honours.
To find improvement, Windsor will need their small recruiting class to step in and contribute from the start, while special teams could also improve after they harnessed strong five-on-five play to elevate them last season but struggled on the powerplay at 15.8 percent, second worst in the division.
There is much to like about the Lancers heading into 2023-24, and they will undoubtedly have another run to the Queen’s Cup on their minds this season.
Key player: Nathan Torchia