The art of the hockey rebuild

Gaels coach harnesses championships to stay in contention year after year

Matt Holmberg has won two championships and multiple OUA accolades with women’s hockey.
Matt Holmberg has won two championships and multiple OUA accolades with women’s hockey.

Two OUA titles in three seasons have made recruiting a little easier for Matt Holmberg.

The women’s hockey head coach used the exposure and prestige that comes with championships to help restock his team in both 2011 and 2013.

After veteran-heavy teams captured banners in those years for Queen’s, he was forced to replace graduating players with large numbers of recruits.

Holmberg sees the Gaels’ consistent success as a selling point, acknowledging that players want to play for a winning team.

“Whenever you’re recruiting someone, to be able to say you’ve been able to win two championships in the last years is always a nice recruiting feather in our cap,” he said.

This year, the team added nine new recruits to offset the loss of seven graduating players, an upheaval only seen in the university game. Unlike pro sports, university teams must constantly rebuild as there’s a five-year playing limit for athletes.

“It is important, if we want to stay consistently in the top four in the OUA, to make sure we’re recruiting as well as possible,” Holmberg said.

To get on the recruiting trail, Holmberg will start looking at a player as early as two years prior to their entrance into Queen’s. He attends Provincial Women’s Hockey League games or the Ontario Under-18 camp to scout the top tier of girls’ hockey.

At the same time, many prospective recruits contact Holmberg personally to express an interest in attending Queen’s.

The coach is also willing to travel all over Canada to get the players he wants. Last year’s team had players from three provinces outside of Ontario, while one of this year’s recruits hails from Alberta.

“We’re happy to recruit coast to coast in an effort to put together the best team possible,” Holmberg said. “I think it’s flattering that Queen’s has that nationwide reputation and appeal for people that want to come.”

Once a player has committed to Queen’s, Holmberg may offer a scholarship worth up to $4,000, depending on funding from Queen’s Athletics. He usually knows how much scholarship money he’ll have for a season the year before, after he receives informal commitments from some players.

“In terms of scholarships, that piece might lag behind a sort of general commitment,” Holmberg said. “Sometimes you have to do it in a two-stage process.”

Queen’s high academic requirements often hinder Holmberg’s ability to get commitments. This means he can’t pursue as many players as other teams, instead competing against schools like McGill to bring in recruits who excel on the ice and in the classroom.

Those same requirements can also lend a helping hand, allowing Holmberg to sell the University’s academic reputation alongside the team’s success.

“I honestly believe that Queen’s is the best of both worlds,” he said. “If you’re looking for top quality education and to play for a great team in great level of hockey, we can offer both.”

It isn’t as simple as just telling recruits about Queen’s. Holmberg often visits a player’s house or home rink, hoping to establish a personal connection.

Although deciding which school to attend can be a stressful time for athletes, Holmberg said it can also be exciting. “Hopefully [the player’s time at Queen’s] can be four or five of the best years of their life.”

QUOTED: Matt Holmberg on...

Walk-Ons

“You do your best to try to predict in terms of where someone might be in September, but if someone comes into camp and proves me wrong, and bumps someone down, I think our team just got that much better.”

Transfer Players

“It’s always player initiated, saying ‘I want to transfer’ for whatever reason. We’re certainly very fortunate that people want to move to Queen’s versus move out
of here.”

Playing in Canada

“Our tuition is a fraction of the cost of the [United] States. I don’t think a lot of people realize that. It’s just trying to educate them that there [are] the top academic and athletic opportunities here ... But that is a challenge, because there is that
perception out there that [players] need to go to the States.”

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.