TORONTO, ON – Highlighted by the defending OUA McCaw Cup Champions, the 2023-24 women’s hockey season in the OUA East is likely to see some of the most competitive games in the country.
Whether the always contending Toronto Varsity Blues and Nipissing Lakers or the potential for surprises, the new season brings allure and excitement in the hunt for an OUA banner and berths at the 2024 U SPORTS Women’s Hockey Championship in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
49 Sports takes a look at each team vying for OUA East supremacy as the division’s season gets underway on Oct. 13
The Nipissing Lakers face the test of a quick turnaround in 2023-24, as they will hope to match the heights they reached in 2022-23, albeit without some key players who have moved on.
After the Lakers made their way to the McCaw Cup Final, falling to the Toronto Varsity Blues heartbreakingly, they fell out of the U SPORTS National Championships in the opening round to the RSEQ’s Concordia Stingers.
Yet, to reach those heights again this season, they have to do so without dynamic offensive talent Maria Dominico, who graduated from the program after the season. Still, that doesn’t mean the team won’t be among the OUA’s elite this season.
Head coach Darren Turcotte will welcome back leading scorer Malory Dominico this season, the younger sister of Maria, as she looks to build on a career-high campaign of 15 goals and 26 points. At the same time, he will hope matured players such as Lana Duriez and Emma Thomas can take a step forward and potentially help replace some of the 16 goal contributions Maria Dominico left this offseason.
Alongside Malory Dominco, the Lakers also return to 2023-24 with Katie Chomiak, who scored 14 goals and 23 points in 2022-23, as well as top-pairing defender Madison Laberge, who scored 21 points from the blue line.
The Lakers finished the 2022-23 season with 19 wins and 55 points and were easily the second-best team in the OUA East, only behind Toronto. For reference, the next best team was the Queen’s Gaels, who only amassed 37 points.
There are many positives for a Nipissing team that had a lighter preseason than the rest of the OUA, even as they move on from one of the most dynamic players in Canadian university hockey.
Ontario Tech Ridgebacks
The Ontario Tech Ridgebacks will hope the 2023-24 season comes with a playoff berth, as they came agonizingly close last season, but slipped up just down the final stretch, eventually finishing five points short of the TMU Bold for the final McCaw Cup Playoff berth.
To make the cut this season, nothing much has to change for the Ridgebacks, who were one of the top defensive teams in the OUA East, conceding just 61 goals last year. However, they will likely need to boost their goal total higher than the 49 they scored in 2022-23.
An improved offence is the key, yet much emphasis will no doubt be placed on their games against their three games against the Bold, as winning those could prove enough to put them into the post-season.
Look for Nicole Escano to carry her form over from last season, where she led the team with four goals and 15 points, as well as Kayla Welk, who scored a team-high seven goals in 2022-23.
A difficult marker for the Ridgebacks, however, is their preseason struggles, being shut out twice in four games, all of which they lost, while scoring just three goals. Still, they will hope to bounce back and find their first win with this season’s group when they open their campaign against the Queen’s Gaels at home.
Heading into the 2023-24 season, the Queen’s Gaels are looking to take a shot at a surprise McCaw Cup run. Under a new head coach in former Gael Morgan McHaffie, Queen’s will ride a veteran core and refreshed staff, hoping to carry momentum into this season.
One of their primary returnees is bound to be forward Scout Watkins-Southward, who was critical in the games she played last season. As a defensively responsible forward, Southward still contributed offensively with nine goals and 15 points while consistently proving to be one of the top two-way forwards in the OUA.
At the same tie, the Gaels will lean on Rebecca Thompson, who rejoins the group after leading Queen’s with nine goals and 20 points last season. However, her often-scoring mate Quinn Johnston won’t be with the group this year, meaning the Gaels will have to find a way of replacing her 20 goal contributions.
All said, the difference-making aspect for Queen’s this year will have to come from goaltending and defence, as despite outsourcing many of their problems in 2022-23, they finished tied for the worst defensive record in the OUA East, conceding 74 goals.
In net, the responsibility likely comes upon Vanessa Campeau, who enters her second season after posting a .936 save percentage through 13 games as a rookie. Meanwhile, the defensive core, led by Sarah Campbell and Charlotte Melindy, must do their best to limit opponent opportunities.
The Gaels have the tools to compete this season and will look notably different under McAffie while former head coach Matt Holmberg watches on. Queen’s opens their season against the Ontario Tech Ridgebacks in Oshawa, Ont.
Toronto Varsity Blues
The Toronto Varsity Blues enter the 2023-24 season as the outright favourite in the OUA East, if not the OUA. Coming off their second McCaw Cup championship in three seasons, the Varsity Blues will look to build off the disappointment that saw them eliminated in the first round of the U SPORTS Women’s Hockey Championship last season.
Head coach Vicky Sunohara brings back a veteran core for the Varsity Blues, led by captain Taylor Trussler, who returns in full health after missing parts of the previous two seasons with injury. With a career-high of nine goals and 16 points in 14 regular season games in 2021-22, the 23-year-old has been in good form in the preseason, averaging two points a game, with four goals and six points in three games.
Outside of Trussler’s potential starring season, Toronto turns to fellow veteran forwards Nikki McDonald, Natasha Athanasakos, and Kaitlyn McKnight, with McDonald returning for her fourth season after leading the team in scoring with 11 goals and 24 points in 2022-23.
On the defensive side of the puck, the veteran presence also remains, with fifth-year netminder Erica Fryer back in the crease as a starter, carrying over a .936 save percentage from last season. She is likely to split starts with Madison Roche, who also comes off a breakout season last year.
Meanwhile, stalwart defenders Olivia Hilton, Caroline Eagles, and Lauren Omoto return for what should be another dominant season for the Varsity Blues, who begin their campaign against the Nipissing Lakers, a rematch of the 2023 McCaw Cup Final.
The TMU Bold are trying to push to the next level. Despite consistently making the McCaw Cup Playoffs, they have struggled to compete with top teams, often having troubling games against their rivals, the Toronto Varsity Blues.
In 2023-24, with a returning group of veterans complimented by several players with two years of OUA experience, the season could be theirs to push to a new level under head coach Lisa Haley.
Veterans Emily Baxter and Megan Breen return for another season, scoring 13 and 12 points, respectively, in 2022-23. Yet, they take on heightened responsibility this season, looking to lift their offensive totals, as TMU lost their top three scorers from last season, Olivia Giardetti, Dani Fox and Erika Crouse.
On the back end, Ahalya Julien-Medeiros, Abby DeCorby, and Saije Catcheway come in with several years of OUA experience under their belt, hoping to help TMU improve on their 69 goals conceded in 2023 while also aiding the powerplay.
Meanwhile, goaltending stands out as a strength with Lauren Griffin and Alexia Stratos likely to split starts, with more opportunities for Shannon Harris, who debuted in the second half of last season.
While losing top offensive contributors and locker room leaders won’t make the start of the season easy for the TMU Bold, they will hope the regular campaign goes better than their preseason, where they lost four of six games, drawing one and winning one in a shootout.
They open the 2023-24 season with three games on the road, away to the Nipissing Lakers, Western Mustangs and Windsor Lancers, ahead of their Oct. 27 home opener against the Ontario Tech Ridgebacks.
The York Lions enter this season hoping to set the standard for the future. While their struggles through preseason don’t indicate potential contention, the largely youthful group has a chance to develop habits that could help them contend over the next several seasons.
Led by veteran head coach Dan Church, the Lions will turn to an experienced core of Taylor Coward, Sara McLennan, and Ilena and Ava Ricker-Singh to bring the knowledge of past seasons and get the rest of the team up to a higher standard.
With eight rookies on the team last season, the Lions struggled, finishing last in the OUA East with nine wins and 18 losses, as well as a division-worst goal differential of -33. This year, small steps towards improvement in all areas of the ice are critical in a pivotal year for second and third years, leaning on senior experience.
Look for Sydney Paulson to continue her growth offensively as she returns for her third season and as the team’s highest returning scorer from 2022-23, where she scored five goals and 12 points in 27 games. At the same time, Sydney Hiltz and Alexa Giantsopoulos will also hope to contribute more significantly in the attack.
The goaltending duties are likely to fall upon a split of Emma Wedgwood and Dominique Chuaqui, with the latter having played just six minutes last season. Meanwhile, Wedgewood will hope to crest her save percentage of .897 set through 15 games as a rookie.
Since qualifying for the 2020 McCaw Cup Final, the Lions have yet to be able to compete at the same level. However, the 2023-24 season presents a chance to develop habits ahead of potential contending years.