A new season of Varsity Blues men’s hockey will open Friday night at Varsity Arena with the University of Toronto bringing back a slew of old faces.
The Blues have 16 players returning from last year’s squad, including their bench boss, Darren Lowe, who’ll enter his 19th season as head coach.
As part of the exhibition schedule, the team travelled to Winnipeg, Ohio and Pennsylvania to get into shape for the season and to cook up some chemistry among teammates.
Lowe said despite going 2-3 – including a 9-1 defeat to the Ohio State Buckeyes – he was encouraged by what he saw and thinks they’ll be ready to go against the Ottawa Gee-Gee’s on opening night.
“It’s hard to tell in the pre-season,” said Lowe, over the phone to the Observer on Tuesday. “We’re just trying to see how our first year guys will do and our returning players, if they’ve improved or they haven’t. Things have looked OK.
“We’ve had some good moments and some not so good moments, but on a whole we should have a half decent team.”
Players leaving the Blues this season include last year’s captain Matt Walters and sniper Kyle Ventura who was second in team scoring with 25 points.
It may be though to lose veteran leaders, but Lowe says the success of a university hockey club is determined by the new crop of skaters coming in.
“It’s always more about the first year players you have and whether it’s going to be an upgrade, downgrade or the same thing,” said the former NHLer with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
This year, they’ll have seven new players joining the team including forwards Casey Knight, Dean Klomp, Connor Cleverley and Russell Turner as well as defencemen Corey Jackson and Charlie Connell. Goalie Michael Nishi will team up with junior Brett Willows and senior Garrett Sheehan.
Economics student Lane Werbowski will enter his sophomore year with the Varsity Blues after making the CIS all-rookie team as a defenceman.
“All indications are that he had a really good first year, but the second year is always much tougher,” said Lowe. “We’re just hoping he can continue to progress along with the rest of the D we have here.”
U of T will retain seven of their eight d-men from 2012-2013.
“I would say most of our top scorers are back from last year,” said Lowe.
U. of T. went 13-9-6 last year and fell to the Gee-Gee’s in the first round of the playoffs.
The Varsity Blues are moving from the OUA’s East Division to the West. Lowe says he doesn’t know what to expect in the west, but thinks the parity in the CIS won’t make things easy for anybody.
“Western [University] has been pretty strong, but it’d be unfair for me to say who’s going to be good and who isn’t,” he said. “Waterloo won the west last year and they were a fourth place team.”
The UNB Varsity Reds of the AUS (Atlantic University Sport) won the CIS University Cup last season in Saskatoon. An OUA team hasn’t won the title since the Western Mustangs did it in 2002.
“If you look at who’s won the national championships over the last 10 years, it’s not the OUA,” said the coach. “The parity in the league is good as anywhere, that’s for sure.”