Brian Birkhoff enters his third year with Ryerson after scoring 14 points as a defenceman last season. (Kevin Campbell/Toronto Observer)

Ryerson men’s hockey team learns new rink drives success

Attendance, morale, fitness, recruitment are all improving

One season is underway, one’s already in the books, and the verdict is in.

Ryerson’s new Mattamy Athletic Centre, opened a year ago, receives a helmets-off, two thumbs up from the building’s new inhabitants, the Ryerson Rams men’s hockey squad.

“This facility is up there as one of the best in the league,” said team captain Andrew Buck, wearing a hoodie and track pants on the player’s bench on Friday during the team’s optional morning skate before their first home game versus McGill.

What’s not to like?

The completely remastered Maple Leaf Gardens now serves as the shining gem of the OUA, and the Rams are out to prove they deserve every bell and whistle that was afforded to them.

“It’s tough for [potential] players, if they’re looking, to not look here,” said Buck, his voice drowned by the torpedo-ing pucks hitting the unforgiving boards.

Putting his words to life, a committed recruit walked the plexi-glassed perimeter in suit and tie with a guide during the skate, in an otherwise empty arena.

There’s a different feel around the team this year, one that’s brought on by coaching, bonding, atmosphere, and a little fitness to boot.

Brian Birkhoff, once of the Peterborough Petes and Ottawa 67s of the OHL, noted coach Graham Wise’s focus on the gymnasium early on.

“We had a really hard training camp this year, which is great,” said the alternate captain and defenceman in the stands after getting in a skate.

“We were bag skating twice a day, making sure our team’s in shape,” said Birkhoff.

And it’s a lot easier to be motivated to hit the iron if it’s across the street.

The Mattamy Athletic Centre boasts not only an NHL-sized ice rink, but a multipurpose court that hosts the university’s basketball and volleyball squads, a cafe, an athletics store, and best of all for these two veterans, a high-performance gym just a staircase away from the locker rooms.

It’s a far cry from Ryerson’s home of old, the George Bell Arena, which took the typical student who lived on campus about 45 minutes to get there, and 45 minutes to get back.

“There wasn’t anything to do there [other than play], you just sit in the dressing room,” said Birkhoff.

“Now I love to get to the rink nice and early whether it’s to work out, skate, or go watch another team.”

That may be the single-most defining aspect of the Rams’ new home.

“Every team comes to watch us and we try and watch every team,” said the third-year business management major. “It definitely increases the athletic friendship.”

Along with the other teams, the students come out in droves now, compared with George Bell Arena.

“The’ve done a couple $3 beer nights,” said Buck. “We had some good crowds and hopefully it continues.”

For a city famous for supporting the blue and white of their Maple Leafs and not much else, the Rams are finding their audience by offering premium hockey on a student’s budget in the heart of downtown Toronto.

Aside from their new digs, Wise has the team buying into his style of hockey, which has broken records at Ryerson, with most points in a season (29) and tied the record for most wins (13) in 2011-12.

Wise came over from York University where he was head coach of the Lions for 19 years before taking the job at Ryerson four years ago.

One year after Wise took over, Ryerson had it’s largest recruiting year ever, with 18 new bodies suiting up for the Rams.

Wise joined the team in 2009 with 12 active players total.

“From my first year [in 2010], [the program] has grown incredibly,” said Birkhoff.

“[The coach] and the facility go hand in hand,” added Buck.

As for this year, the Rams are looking to improve upon a 12-16 season in which they were swept out of the first round of the playoffs, but scrapped their way to the post-season after a 5-11 start.

“We’re looking to earn home ice advantage this year,” said Birkhoff.