Season Preview: Men’s & Women’s Hockey

Coaches speak to ‘The Journal’ before the start of the 2021-22 season

Matt Holmberg, left, and Brett Gibson, right, are ready to hit the ice again.

After a season canceled by the pandemic, both the women’s and men’s hockey teams are ready to return to the Kingston Memorial Centre for the start of the 2021-22 campaign.

Ahead of the women’s regular season opener against the Nipissing Lakers at the Memorial Centre on Nov. 5 and the men’s opener on Nov. 3 against the RMC Paladins, The Journal spoke to both the head coach of the women’s team, Matt Holmberg and the head coach of the men’s team, Brett Gibson, about the upcoming season.

“I feel like I can confidently say that this is top five, in terms in confidence and positive feelings that I’ve had towards the start of the season,” Holmberg began when asked about his feelings around the women’s team.

“Now, granted, some of that might just be the fact that we’re playing hockey again […] but looking at it objectively, what this team looks like off the ice and what this team looks like on the ice, I can tell from experience, are both very promising.”

The Gaels have ranked in the top five of the OUA in the last four seasons and won a conference title in 2018, a record of success Holmberg is prepared to build upon this season.

“We made it a goal of ours last spring to improve what we think are the two pillars of a championship team, which are championship relationships and championship results,” Holmberg remarked. “What we see and hear is a team that gets along […] but when it’s time to get at it, they’re very determined.”

The team’s work will prove necessary preparation once the season begins. With a relatively inexperienced team and a shorter and stronger schedule due to pandemic restrictions, the competition to make the playoffs will be tight.

“We’ve got a really good blend, I think, a mix of years. Honestly, of the 27 players we have on our roster right now, twelve of them, prior to the last week or two, had never played a U Sports game,” Holmberg explained.

This season, the margins for error are even smaller due to changes in the OUA format, which Holmberg quickly recognized.

“We’ve been reduced from 24 down to 20 games and we’ve been split from one big conference into two divisions, […] our division is extremely difficult. There are six teams, five of whom were the top seven teams in the league two years ago, two of whom were our representatives at nationals two years ago,” he said.

“It’s going to be a grind. Every single one of those 20 games is going to be a grind […] our first goal has to be making the playoffs.”

Even with the changes, Coach Holmberg remains optimistic about his team, particularly about how the team’s talent, leadership, and effort have translated on the ice.

“We’ve got an exciting brand of hockey, […] the particular brand of hockey that we’re putting on the ice is one of the most exciting and dynamic that we’ve had in years.”

Turning to men’s hockey, Gibson reflected on the team heading into the regular season after a 4-2 exhibition win against McGill and a 2-4 loss to X University.

“That game against McGill wasn’t a pre-season game, it was like a playoff game, […] the excitement level to play again, that makes for great competition. I think every night is going to be a tough competition.”

After winning the Queen’s Cup during the 2018-19 season, the team’s fortunes have declined. The team fell into the bottom four of the OUA East division during the 2019-20 pandemic-shortened season.

However, Coach Gibson’s aim has never wavered, and with the addition of some key pieces, he believes the Gaels have an improved lineup and will be capable of winning the OUA and beyond.

“Our theme is karma. For me, the pre-season leads into the regular season […] we want to see ourselves put in a position to play four home games for the national championship.”

To do so, though, Gibson will need to rely on a strong lineup, which he believes he has in this year’s roster of players.

“We have three goaltenders that have significant major junior experience, our defense has ten major junior defensemen […] and up front, we finally have that gamebreaker, I feel, in [Johnathan] Yantsis and [Matthew] Needham.”

Above all, Gibson is eagerly awaiting opening night against RMC, a historic rival. It’s an energy his players can feel as well.

“It’s fantastic. I really have to settle them down a bit […] the enthusiasm every day has been fantastic and I think they’re just ready for a real game where points matter.”

Gibson also commented on the Paladins, whom the Gaels will be facing eight times over the regular season.

“It doesn’t matter where Queen’s and RMC are in the standings in hockey, it’s always a very competitive game. […] Each team does not want to lose [...] eight times against them, we’re going to know each other really well.”

“It’s just going to be matter of when the puck drops, who wants it more, every single night.”

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