The Rams men’s hockey team will be returning to the ice on Thursday night after missing nearly two years of play to COVID-19.
The team is coming off a 3-2 record in the pre-season as it goes into its home opener against the Brock Badgers.
The Rams racked up wins in the pre-season against the University of Toronto Varsity Blues, Queen’s Gaels and Guelph Gryphons.
They lost their other games, against the Western Mustangs and Windsor Lancers.
The Mustangs also defeated them in the OUA West divisional semifinal in the 2019-20 season, after the Rams won 20 regular-season games.
For the last five seasons, the Rams journey to an Ontario championship has stopped at the semifinals.
Going into this season, head coach Johnny Duco said he believes the return to play is something the team is more than ready for.
“We were fortunate to have an extended training camp like we have, where we can truly treat it as more of a return to play than we would a typical training camp,” said Duco.
Duco said easing the team into practice instead of throwing them into full activities was the smarter call.
“We’ve tried to be very mindful and thoughtful of making sure that we’re remaining as healthy as possible and setting [the team] up to be successful.”
Associate coach Nathaniel Brooks said the team started to skate together in August and gradually introduced different elements into practice.
The focus has now shifted to consistently performing up to expectations, Brooks added.
“It’s about teaching them the nuances of the league, focusing on the little details, so that they can build consistency,” said Brooks. “It’s basically like pro hockey but you’re at school.”
Brooks said the team is in a good place physically, and that the players are engaged after participating in three-on-three tournaments during training camp.
The team is veteran-heavy and they have made sure that the new players that have joined the Rams are comfortable with the team, Duco said.
“Our leadership group is tremendous,” said Duco. ”They’ve welcomed the first- and second-year players that have yet to suit up with open arms.”
There are 16 returning players from the 2019-20 roster, including newly minted captain Jared Walsh.
Walsh, a fourth-year defenceman, is taking over from previous captain, Matt Mistele, who signed professionally in Slovakia in August 2020.
Duco said that it was important to let the process of selecting a new captain happen organically as the players reconnected with each other after a long hiatus.
Ultimately, the players voted for the captain and assistant captains this year, and were asked to provide a rationale for their choice.
“I think the players spoke loud and clear as to who they thought the leaders on the team were and we supported that,” said Duco.
Fifth-year defenceman Matt Nosella, third-year forward Hayden McCool and fourth-year forwards Cavin Leth and David Miller will serve as assistant captains.
Mistele was not the only departure from the team. Starting goalie Taylor Dupuis also signed professionally in September 2020.
Longtime stalwarts of the team, Mathew Santos and Devon Paliani, signed last month with the Maine Mariners of the East Coast Hockey League, an affiliate of the Boston Bruins.
However, many valuable players remain on the team.
Fourth-year defender Gregory DiTomaso and third-year Mark Shoemaker also returned to the roster, as graduate students in the Ted Rogers School of Management
The team also has 13 new players from two recruiting classes.
Forwards Elijah Roberts, Cole Resnick and Jackson Doherty joined the team after playing multiple seasons in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL).
Defenceman Joseph Rupoli and centre Chris Playfair also have OHL experience.
The Rams also added players with junior league experience. Forwards Kyle Bollers and Kevin Gursoy played in the Ontario Junior Hockey League (OJHL) and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL), where Bollers finished tied for first in scoring with 86 points.
Defenceman Ryan Wells came from the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League (GOJHL), where he captained the Caledonia Corvairs, leading all defencemen with 72 points in 46 games.
Veteran goaltender Luke Peressini also joined the team from the Western Mustangs after defeating the Rams in the OUA West divisional semifinal in the 2019-20 season.
Brooks said that the loss of veteran players is overstated and the team is ready to compete regardless of who is on the roster.
“We really like our group and are confident in what this group can do,” said Brooks. “We think that we’re a top-tier team that’s gonna do a lot of damage.”