If the renaissance of the York University Lions arrived last season in force, this year is looking like it might be an ascendance to university hockey elite.
One year removed from a last-place finish in the Ontario University Athletics’ Western Conference, York University’s men’s hockey team rode a professionally experienced goaltender and 17 freshmen to home-ice advantage in the first round of the 2011-12 playoffs.
Jesse Messier, the team’s senior captain, was York’s leading scorer in 2011-12 and is content with his groups’ attitude concerning their success.
“Guys are definitely confident after what happened last year,” the former Sudbury Wolves and St. Mike’s Majors forward said outside the locker room.
“But at the same time we really aren’t letting it get to our head. We are using it as a stepping-stone, and we are not happy with what we accomplished.
“We really believe we can take it to the next level now.”
Messier is the beating heart of the team off the ice, and after a year in 2011-12 that saw him dominate the groups’ scoring title by 10 points, it’s reasonable to say that he is tremendously important between the whistles as well.
Head Coach Jim Wells would agree on both points.
“We try to build our club on four values: work ethic, accountability, team-first mentality, and no regrets,” Wells said, outside of his office.
“If I could use four words to define Jesse, those are they. When your leader has all of our core values, it’s easy for everyone else to fall in line and it makes my job easier.”
York features a pair of former pros in goaltender Andrew Perugini and defenceman John de Grey that bring experience in both the East Coast Hockey League and the American Hockey League.
Perugini, 24, plyed his trade with the Edmonton Oilers ECHL affiliate in Stockton as well as a handful of games as a member of the AHL’s Springfield Falcons.
De Gray, also 24, spent his entire junior career with the Brampton Battalion, was drafted in the third round in 2006 by Anaheim, and played 143 total games in the AHL with Portland, Iowa, Rocheter, and Syracuse between 2007 and last season.
“It’s huge [to have them],” said Messier. “They provide a lot of leadership coming right in, and while it may be their first or second years on the team, they have played at real high levels and they know what it takes to push themselves and the other guys on the team.”
In the summer of 2009, York University athletic director Jennifer Myers hired veteran junior and Canadian college coach Wells to take the reigns of the program, and all he has done is bring the Lions out of mediocrity with an all-for-one team focus, and a brilliant eye for recruiting.
“Ms. Myers gave [me and the coaching staff] the ability to recruit character and quality guys,” Wells said just before practice on the Keele campus of the university.
“When you have the ability to build a plan and then walk it, only then can you succeed in university hockey.”
With a squad built around speed, intensity, and defensive accountability, the Lions enter this season after an exhibition schedule in which they won all four games, beating RMC, Ryerson, and Toronto (twice) by a combined score of 25-7.
York launches a balanced offensive attack at the opposition, one that boasts eight different double-digit point-scorers from a year ago and that has the skating ability to take advantage of the international-sized ice surface at Canlan Ice Sports.
Asked what the team goals are for the up-coming season that starts in earnest on Oct. 6 at Lakehead, Perugini has but a simple response.
“We want to improve on last year; we want to finish stronger in the season and the playoffs, and I think we have the team to do that,” he said.
“We won’t be satisfied if we don’t.”