Hockey: Ottawa Gee-Gees embrace their restart: 'It's bigger than just hockey'

Twenty-five university hockey rookies. Thirty-one months since they last hosted a game on their campus rink.

Counting that up underscores the scope of the Ottawa Gee-Gees men's hockey relaunch. While the media coverage at that time implied otherwise, the University of Ottawa acted correctly early in 2014 when it suspended after it learned belatedly about a sexual assault investigation of an incident following a road trip to Thunder Bay. (Two former Ottawa players are scheduled to go to trial in August 2017.) It looks even righter 2½ years later, but not because the Crown laid charges. It looks righter since scandals at Baylor, USA Gymnastics and further revelations about Penn State have led to greater consciousness of how the sports world acts very slowly in regard to sexual assault.

That's the big picture. The small stuff, which is what's fair to ask players about, revolves around how coach Patrick Grandmaître and the players are warming to the job of re-assembling a team. The horse pulling the cart is representing the university.

"I think it's pretty cool; It's definitely a little bit different from when you're in junior and it's just hockey," goalie Anthony Brodeur says. "Now you're a whole school and there are a lot of other people. You're not the only thing on campus. We're not here just for hockey. We're here for school. Hockey is obviously big, but you want to graduate and get your degree. It's bigger than just hockey." 

The program's suspension was extended through 2014-15. Following a search, Grandmaître was introduced as the coach late in July 2015, with advisory support from the Ottawa Senators. Ottawa sat out a second season to allow time to bring in a recruiting class. While it's a near-wholesale change -- defenceman Gabriel Vermette is the only returnee -- there is an onus on showing a new leaf has been turned over.

"It's a big challenge for us to gain respect from everyone else," forward Mathieu Newcomb says. "It's a big opportunity. We have to make sure that we're professional on, and off the ice. For me, I'm new to the big city [after coming from Grand-Digue, N.B], and I'm still learning, but I'm sure I'll adapt." 

Ottawa has an exhibition game against the Binghamton Senators, Ottawa's farm team, on Friday. The league opener is against the UOIT Ridgebacks on Oct. 7. Scratching out points with a brand-new roster that will be up will be interesting, especially with Carleton, Concordia, McGill and Trois-Rivières might be challenging.

"Being young, that can kind of play to our advantage more than people may think," says defenceman Jacob Sweeney, who played 4½ seasons with the QMJHL's Moncton Wildcats. "When we have 25 guys who are coming to a new team, fighting for positions, it causes everyone to work harder. There are no set veterans, on the first line or power play. Everyone has a fresh start and needs to prove themselves over and over. It creates a friendly competition that ultimately raises everyone else's game.

 "After we took McGill to double overtime [on Sept. 13], one of their guys told me, 'if you guys play like that and work like that, you'll do fine.' " Sweeney adds. "When guys get older in this league they can fad. it's either 'I have a chance to turn pro' or it's 'I'm just going to school and I'm almost done my hockey career.' When everyone's young, they have that motivation to keep pushing."

Some other thoughts from four Gee-Gees whom I spoke with the other day - goalie Brodeur, Sweeney from the back end, and forwards Newcomb and Michael Poirier.

On how Grandmaître is working on fostering a team culture:

Sweeney: "In the recruiting process, Patrick put a huge emphasis on being part of building that. Everyone in this room is great individually, and I'm not saying the last team wasn't. One of the guys who was there [Vermette] is one of the greatest. He really emphasized having not only good hockey players but good people in order to put down roots."

Poirier: "I know most CIS camps only start the first week of September. We got here, I think it was, Aug. 22, for the first day. Right away we started team bonding activities. That definitely helped us with learning to communicate with each other and the results have followed suit on the ice, so far. We've learned our tendencies.

"Pat concentrates on good people, and then good hockey players. You can't have it in the dressing room where one guy is bigger than the team ... Pat has good leadership skills, good communications skills. It helps us as players to buy in."

Brodeur: "We're going to be a young team compared to everyone else, For us, it's just a matter of competing as hard as we can every single game, every single practice. Our work ethic is the most biggest essential thing to our success. None of us knew each other coming in. A few guys knew each other, but we didn't know each other as a team."

On what motivates one to be part of a team which is at square one:

Sweeney: "I did have a couple options to pursue professional hockey, in a couple of different ways. But I thought it was just time to go to school. Hockey's a really rough lifestyle. You come out of hockey at age 28, you have nothing in your back pocket – no degree, no school. Then you're – I'm not going to say screwed, but it puts you in a rough spot. And hockey is a dog-eat-dog world. I got a good sniff last year when I was in New Jersey. It was a good month and a half of pro camps, AHL camps, stuff like . It's a dog-eat-dog world. I just thought that education, getting a degree within the next three years potentially, and hopefully trying pro hockey afterward, was the way to go.

"Pat was really persistent on selling his program – 'I think there's something special, I think there's an opportunity for you here to play.' In the Maritimes [AUS conference] you could end up being behind three or four guys, end up as the sixth defenceman. Whereas here, there's immediate opportunity. I saw it as, if I am going to be playing 25 to 30 games a year, I might as well go where I can compete for that 25 minutes a game of ice time.

Newcomb. "It's a wonderful opportunity, a clean sheet for everyone. Coming into a new program everyone's given the same chance ... I love the competitiveness of this league. It's faster and stronger but I feel I'm up to it."

Brodeur: "I was excited to take this route once I figured out that it was best for me. Marc Beckstead is a good buddy of mine who kind of sold me on it. We played together in Gatineau [of the QMJHL]. I loved the area while I was in Gatineau and that definitely played in a part. Ottawa is a great city. It's not too big but there is still a lot of people. There's a lot going on, stuff to do. That is unique compared to other cities where I have played, or even where I have lived in the States."

Poirier: "The city of Ottawa sold me ... I also did two years at [University of] Moncton in marketing and the Telfer business program is one of the top five in Canada. That definitely sold me too. It's a good opportunity. Everyone is brand-new. You don't have to wait for your turn."

On the need to circulate with other athletes, while being one Gee-Gees team among several:

Brodeur: "We went to the football home opener, I've been to a few rugby and soccer games. They've been to our games. We've had some barbecues together where we got to know the other athletes. They have a good team culture, which I like a lot."

Sweeney: "You go to the other teams' games, they'll come to yours. It's a lot more fun when you have 50 or 60 athletes cheering you on instead of 10 parents."

On the challenge of playing against pros when the face Binghamton (whom Carleton defeated in an exhibition game at the start of '15-16):

Newcomb: "For a lot of us who have only ever been to junior camps, that will be the strongest competition we have ever faced in our lives. Playing at a pro level, it's a big challenge, but it's a big opportunity."

Brodeur: "It's another big test for us to see what we can do. We're not going in expecting anything. We're just going to do what we can, play our game, and see if we can make a game out of it."
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