A normal off-season for any Canadian university sports team can be a busy one amid roster turnovers due to graduation and transfers.
The road to the return of the Lakehead Thunderwolves men’s hockey team has been anything but normal.
After all varsity sports were cancelled for the 2020-21 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, schools are preparing to return to action in the fall with plenty of business to handle.
The Thunderwolves will undergo nearly a complete makeover when the puck finally drops on Nov. 4 in the OUA regular season opener at Fort William Gardens against the York Lions. When that day comes, it will have been 628 days since their last game (first round of the 2020 playoffs).
“We say it’s an off-season, but it’s been like a year and a half since our guys have been on the ice together,” LU head coach Andrew Wilkins said. “We’re just excited that we can get back to hockey schools and get the community back to together.”
Among the key departures are the Thunderwolves’ top three scorers from the last season played, including Daniel Del Paggio (graduation), Josh Laframboise (pro) and Tomas Soustal (pro). Goaltender Nic Reynard, defencemen Patrick Murphy and Callum Fryer were the graduates already lost after the 2019-20 season, while a core of players (Scott Gall, Cooper Leitch, Joseph Leonidas, Brett Wolframe and Aaron Wesley-Chisel) recently finished their fourth year of studies. It isn’t known if any of them would return for a fifth season.
The double cohort of graduation is a reality faced by all schools.
“Everybody went through that. I couldn’t really speak to every team,” said Wilkins, who guided Lakehead to a 13-12-3 record two seasons ago. “There’s been a couple of transfers within the league with guys looking to stay closer to home and stuff like that. Every team does it their own way. We’re basically taking advantage of rebuilding and bringing in almost 10 new faces.”
Wilkins added that all six of their major recruits from last summer will be part of training camp in September. There will be a crop of 2021 recruits, which will be announced later this summer.
Wilkins, who is entering his fourth year at the helm of the Wolves, sees this as a perfect opportunity for new stars to step up.
“We’re going to have to figure it out, for sure. It’s a lot of goals (missing) with Tomas and Daniel with both over a point per game. Josh was third in the league (in goal) scoring,” he said. “It will obviously be a different look, so we have to find different ways to get it done. . . . There will be new opportunities for those new guys coming in.”
In order to ease into a resumption of sports after the pandemic, OUA teams will play a shortened season. The LU hockey club is set to play in 20 regular season games. The schedule itself is odd — the Thunderwolves will play the first four weekend at the Gardens before the Christmas/exam break. They will then play away from Thunder Bay for five weeks, and wrap up the regular season at home versus Brock at the end of February.
“It’s natural to say, ‘Oh we’re not (home) for three months.’ . . . It’s a front-loaded home schedule. We’re excited about that — starting out at home. We have that last weekend against Brock we can build some traction into having an exciting series at home,” Wilkins said.
“At this point, we’re just excited to play. Wherever we can get on the ice, fine.”