TORONTO, ON – It’s the most beautiful time of the year. After another summer of waiting, planning, and preparing, the 2023-24 OUA women’s hockey season has finally arrived again.
After Toronto and Nipissing squared off for the 2023 McCaw Cup, it might feel like the favourites in the OUA all reside in the East Division. The West Division, however, might be as open as ever, with almost every team having a realistic shot at first place.
The Brock Badgers have to hope that home is where the heart is in 2023-24 because it was the struggles in their home rink a year ago that nearly caused them to become the first team in modern OUA women’s hockey history to miss the playoffs the season after winning the McCaw Cup.
The Badgers will get some stability up front as senior Claudia Murphy returns after leading Brock with 12 points a season ago. In the crease, the Badgers might have the most potent tandem in the OUA as Kenzie Harmison returns along with Tiffany Hsu. Harmison and Hsu were one of only two goalie tandems, along with Toronto’s, to each finish in the top 10 in goals-against average and save percentage in the league.
The biggest challenge for the Badgers, though, remains at home. After taking their home opener a year ago, they dropped their next seven at Canada Games Park, ultimately finishing the season 4-8-2 on their St. Catharines ice, the worst among playoff teams. Brock takes to their home ice twice in their first eight games but finishes the fall semester with five of six therein.
Those games will likely be an early indicator of the fate for Brock in this new campaign.
Between 2015 and 2019, the Guelph Gryphons could be called the class of the OUA. They made four McCaw Cup appearances in five years, winning the trophy three times, culminating in the 2019 U SPORTS national title.
It was the league’s best goaltending, allowing the fewest goals each year between those years, along with a potent and timely offence that helped carry the Gryphons. While they haven’t gotten back to those heights yet, in 2023-24, the hope has to be the pieces are starting to fall into place.
The Gryphons improved significantly in the regular season a year ago, losing the division to Waterloo by just two points rather than 12 in 2021-22. That came thanks to a breakout performance by returning third-year goalie Martina Fedel. In her first full-length season as a starter, Fedel led the league with 15 wins and finished third with a 1.48 GAA.
The Gryphons leaned on Fedel through a wild McCaw Cup playoffs that saw her duel with Kirsten Swiatoschik and the Windsor Lancers for three games before advancing to the semifinal and pushing the Toronto Varsity Blues to three games and bowing out. For the Gryphons to get over the hump this year, it will start with a repeat performance in the crease.
Up front, the Gryphons see almost their entire central group return, headlined by leading scorers in seniors Jamie Magoffin and Tori Verbeek, along with fifth-year Hannah Tait.
The Gryphons sit in a unique spot with so many leaders returning, but they will also have to use this season to figure out who will take over moving forward as their veterans move on.
The Warriors have been the picture of regular-season success the last two years. They won the OUA West Division by 12 points over Guelph in 2021-22, and despite a much improved Gryphons team, they held on to win it again by two points a season ago. The playoffs, however, have been a different story.
Although perhaps not as stunning as their upset loss to the Western Mustangs in 2022, the Warriors only just managed to sneak past the Brock Badgers in the opening round thanks to a last-minute Elizabeth Lenardon goal to give them a 2-1 win in Game 3. In their second round against the lower-seeded Nipissing Lakers, they forced a comeback from 3-1 before losing 4-3 in overtime in Game 1, and ultimately dropped the next two thereafter.
A few pieces have moved on, namely veteran defender Carley Olivier, but crucially for Waterloo, the OUA’s top two scorers in Leah Herrfort and Tatum James return to the black and gold for another season. Sophomore Kara Mack, who took over the crease after Mikayla Schnarr was injured in November, returns to the net for the Warriors after finishing with a .933 save percentage, second-best for rookie OUA goalies.
The most honest way to describe the Western Mustangs in 2022-23 might have been underwhelming. After a shock upset win over the top-seeded Waterloo Warriors in the 2022 McCaw Cup playoffs pushed them to the semifinals, the hope was that the following season would see Western push for their first OUA title since 2018.
Western started well enough at 3-3-1 in their first seven games, but faded down the stretch in the first semester to finish December at 5-8-1. Ultimately, the second semester saw them locked in essentially a nightly battle with the Brock Badgers for the final playoff spot in the division, with Brock breaking Mustang hearts with a 2-1 win over Western to seal up the playoff spot on the season’s final day. Western ultimately missed the playoffs for just the second time since 2011.
No team leaned harder on their starting netminder in 2022-23 than the Mustangs did, with Kaitlyn Booth taking the crease 25 times, the most in the OUA since Megan Lee made 24 starts for York in 2014-15. With Booth moving on, question marks remain in the net, with backup Ella Brarbrook only getting into three starts in her rookie season.
Up front, things are a little clearer with Adeline Kristoff returning after leading Western with seven goals and ten points. With just 40 goals in 27 games, though, the pressure is on the Mustangs, especially with less stability in the net, to score their way out of at least a few of their problems.
Sophomore Haylie Kirkpatrick taking a step forward after finishing with five goals and 10 points in her rookie campaign would go a long way to help Western find their way over the hump back to the postseason.
Laurier Golden Hawks
The Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks have an almost unfathomable history. Between 2003-04 and 2013-14, the Hawks soared to the McCaw Cup title a remarkable nine times in eleven seasons, including seven straight championships between 2003 and 2010. They added five national medals in that timeframe, including three silvers, a bronze and the 2005 national title.
It has been a different story the last 10 years in Waterloo, though. After losing in the semifinals in 2016, the Golden Hawks have not made the McCaw Cup playoffs since and finished the 2022-23 season sixteen points below the Western Mustangs in last in the OUA West Division.
The biggest challenge for the Golden Hawks came up front with a league-low 30 goals in 26 games. The top pieces offensively do return, though in third-year Hayley Szymanowski, who led the team with four goals and 10 points, and fifth-year Chloe Davidson, who added four goals and eight points. In net, senior Acadia Carlson returns after finishing the season with a .925 save percentage and three shutouts in 18 games.
Ultimately, it all can’t be fixed in a single season, but the Golden Hawks have a storied history, and the hope remains that 2023-24 can be the first step on the road back.
There might not be a team in the country happier to see a player return than the Windsor Lancers are with Kirsten Swiatoschik. The fifth-year keeper takes one more ride with the Lancers in 2023-24 after putting on one of the most outstanding playoff performances ever.
In their first-round series with the Gryphons, Swiatoschik and the Lancers traded shutouts with Martina Fedel and Guelph, with the former picking up a 1-0 double overtime shutout win in Game 1 before the latter earned a 3-0 win in Game 2.
It was in Game 3, though, tied at 2-2 thanks to a last-minute Abby Davies goal for Guelph, that ultimately stretched into four overtime periods before Hannah Tait punched the ticket for the Gryphons, that Swiatoschik was the star. The keeper turned away 70 of the 73 Guelph shots, including 41 attempts in overtime, and should go down despite the loss as an all-time performance.
Now, the Lancers look to get back to that spot and not only win, but push for their first McCaw Cup title. Third-year Jaden Cherry, who broke out for 26 points in 27 games, returns to lead the offence for the Lancers, while sophomore Keana McKibbin will look to build on her team-high 12 goals from her rookie of the year campaign in 2022-23.