Building a hockey team from scratch can be hard. Building a hockey team from scratch to compete against UQTR, McGill, Queen's, and Carleton among the rest of the OUA East, well... some may say that's nearly impossible.
But don't say that to Patrick Grandmaitre.
It's hard to imagine Patrick Grandmaitre wasn't a little nervous heading into the 2016 offseason. Although the public expectation for Ottawa wasn't set terribly high given the circumstances, anyone who has competitive bones in their body doesn't care what the public expectation is. They want to win. With Ottawa plunging into a recruit race which has become increasingly competitive, political, and sometimes iniquitous over the years, the thought of not being able to lure top-end junior hockey talent away from the CIS powerhouses had to be a real fear. But that's not how the story unfolded for Ottawa this offseason.
With a base roster set heading into training camp, the Ottawa Gee Gees are producing a group of hockey players some believe will be good enough to not just survive, but thrive in their first CIS season.
Which ever way the roster shapes up, there's still another important aspect to the reconstruction of the Ottawa Gee Gees. The coaching staff.
Before finding the right players for the team, the University of Ottawa had to find the right coaches for the bench, and it began with the hiring of Patrick Grandmaitre, who was tasked with leading the Ottawa Gee Gees journey back to the CIS.
"Jacques Martin was part of the hiring process for my position," says Grandmaitre of piecing together the coaching staff, "When it was time to look for assistants, he had some good advice in saying try and find guys that complete you, that push you, that are different from you to make sure you have a full range of aspects of the game and personalities."
One of those different personalities comes in the form of Brent Sullivan. A former OHLer with the Sarnia Sting whose career ended after just four games with the Carleton Ravens in 2012-13.
"It's kind of a funny story," says Sullivan on being hired by the Gee Gees. "I was coaching with the Surrey Eagles out in B.C., and I had a goalie by the name of Justin Laforest. An Ottawa boy, wasn't having too much success [in B.C.], so I called Patrick to see if there was a spot [in Ottawa] for Justin. The conversation kinda progressed to what am I doing next year, and I asked Patrick what his plans were."
As they say, the rest is history.
"For a young guy, he's been in a lot of roles and gained a lot of experience in a short time," says Grandmaitre of Sullivan. "He's an outgoing person, he likes to socialize, and he's gonna be a good mix between me the coach, and the players."
At 26 years old, Sullivan is one of the younger coaches in the OUA. But that's nothing new in a league where Ben Fanelli was recently announced as an assistant with Waterloo at just 23 years-old, and even Parliament Hill rivals, the Carleton Ravens, brought Ryan Medel from the roster to the coaching staff in 2010-11 as a 23 year-old.
But the CIS expertise doesn't end there. For a pair of seasons, Matthew Dopud was the number one goalie for Marty Johnston's Carleton Ravens, and after last suiting up for the Ravens in 2013-14, Dopud returns to the CIS as the goalie coach for the Ottawa Gee Gees.
"The good thing about Matthew is that he's not someone I hired just because he's looking for something to do," says Grandmaitre. "He works at a goalie academy, so he has good knowledge of how to support goalies and how to work with them to try and build on their strengths, and tweak their weaknesses."
As the debate across the hockey world rages on between analytics and the old-school methods of player evaluation, the Gee Gees have followed suit with most teams, and hired an analytics manager, Liam Houlahan.
"I won't rely on [analytics] all the time, but I can't deny the fact that the numbers tell certain things," says Grandmaitre. "I just don't have the time or the knowledge to track all those numbers. [Liam] has that passion, and that twinkle in his eye for those type of things, so if [analytics] can give me an advantage, I'd be stupid not to look into it."
And most recently, the Gee Gees welcomed their newest addition to the staff, Ryan Lauzon. Another coach who continues the theme of CIS experience, having two productive seasons with Saint Mary's, leading the team in points both years he played.
"We interviewed four different people, and the university assistant coaching job sounds quite amazing on some points, but the budgets aren't amazing. So we have to find guys that are willing to put in the work and are eager to stay at a high level, and that's what Ryan was willing to do," says Grandmaitre.
With the coaching staff set in place, all the attention turns to the roster on the Gee Gees. A roster that was almost entirely reconstructed from the ground up with, the exception of the returning Gabriel Vermette.
"There were definitely some conversations prior to going out and scouting guys," says Brent Sullivan of the recruiting process. "We were thinking, always character first. We're settling into a three to four year marriage with these guys, so with this situation, we essentially get to watch these guys grow."
"I wish it had been a bit easier," says Grandmaitre reflecting on the offseason. "We worked really hard to promote the city, the school, and the idea of coming in and playing right away. The city of Ottawa is not hard to sell, the University of Ottawa is a good university academically, and there's a lot of other good schools out there, but the one thing we have is a fresh start. Some guys were looking at our school to be a place to come in and make an impact right away and not necessarily wait."
But as appealing as Ottawa's pitch may have been to some, contending with the other top CIS hockey programs proved to be a very difficult task.
"We missed out on a lot of guys," says Grandmaitre. "I can honestly say there's about four guys that I'm really mad that I didn't get because I thought we were really, really close. Those were good players, good character individuals. I can put myself in their shoes, and I understand why they ended up going to other schools, but you almost get attached to some of these good quality players that end up going to another good program."
With the CIS preseason on the horizon, we won't have to wait much longer to see how it all pans out for the Ottawa Gee Gees. With their sights set on the beginning of the season, the Gee Gees know what their team is capable of, and have goals in place to keep the season in perspective.
"We want to compete, and we are by no means going to be a doormat," says Sullivan. "We will have to compete with our work ethic, structure, and playing the game the right way. That's how we're going to win games."
On the surface, it appears nearly everything has gone according to plan for the Gee Gees. They have a roster, they have a coaching staff, and they have an okay-ish broadcast team. What more could you possibly want out of an upstart CIS hockey program?
Written by: Victor Findlay (@Finder_24)