It’s no coincidence that the men’s hockey program has a Western Canadian core.
Men’s hockey coach Brett Gibson’s player recruiting strategy looks westward to avoid the cluster of Ontario’s 18 other university hockey programs, all competing for top players. Ten of the team’s 26 players in 2011-12 hail from the west, and others are set to join in 2012-13.
“When I took over this program, I knew I had to find a niche,” Gibson said.
This recruiting niche starts in Manitoba and stretches out to B.C. It’s a vast area, and a road largely untraveled by most coaches in the OUA, who are attracted mainly to the OHL — Ontario’s top junior hockey league.
“I was walking around the rinks in Ontario, and I’m tripping into [coaches from] 18 different schools in the OUA.” Gibson said. “Whereas I go out west, and I’m one of the only guys out there. But now we’re seeing a lot of schools [this year] starting to copy the trend — we’re seeing York and a couple others out west now.”
Six years ago Gibson tabbed former captain Jon Lawrance as his first Western Canadian recruit. A Winnipeg native, Lawrance went on to score 100 points during his Gaels career.
Through Gibson’s own playing and coaching careers, he developed a network of contacts out West. His primary scout is former Gaels captain Jeff Ovens, who’s employed by the school to find the top hockey players in the Western region.
Gibson provides Ovens with a preliminary list of potential recruits every winter.
After Ovens makes his recommendations, Gibson travels to Western Canada to decide which players best fit the Gaels program.
But attracting the diamonds in the rough of the Western junior leagues is still a tough challenge. Gibson said he lost six players to NCAA schools in the United States this year alone.
Tier 1 junior teams are considered professional teams under NCAA legislation, preventing them from recruiting former Canadian Hockey League players.
But many higher-end tier 2 players choose the American route because of athletic scholarships, which aren’t offered in the CIS.
“The challenge is dealing with those [NCAA] schools, which you completely avoid in the major junior leagues [such as the OHL].”
Resorting to tier 2 junior leagues to find players can be risky, as the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) is widely considered the most skilled junior league in Canada.
But when the best of tier 2 are up against the lesser of tier 1, player comparison is more subjective.
“I’d rather have a top tier 2 player who played on the powerplay, played on the penalty kill, played a regular shift.” Gibson said. “He’s more prepared to jump in right away, compared to the OHL player who only played seven minutes a night.”
Among the top Western recruits for next season is Andrew Wiebe, captain of the Portage Terriers of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League (MJHL). Gibson also recruited defenseman Jordan Auld of the OHL’s Brampton Battallion.
The Gaels finished eighth in the OUA’s East Conference last season, and Gibson says the team won’t settle for eighth place again.
“Recruiting is crucial nowadays. You’ve got to have good players to win and it’s getting more competitive across the country.”
Wiebe and Auld are two big names, and they’ll be joined by at least four other rookies come September, totalling to 14 players from Western Canada.
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