OTTAWA — Feel-good stories in hockey have had a good run lately, from David Ayres to Bobby Ryan.
With a lot less fanfare, the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees men’s hockey team has written its own remarkable story of resolve and rehabilitation.
Six years ago, the largest bilingual university in the world shut down its hockey program for two full seasons out of remorse and shame, as two members of the Gee-Gees were charged with sexual assault while the team was in Thunder Bay in February of 2014. Both players were ultimately acquitted of the charges.
In the wake of those charges, the Garnet and Grey hockey team had to start over from scratch.
That backdrop makes this week’s news all the more stunning: Head coach Patrick Grandmaître, the man who undertook the massive challenge just four years ago, has the Gee-Gees in the U Sports national tournament from March 12-15 in Halifax.
This road less travelled has to qualify as one of the finest coaching/recruiting achievements in college hockey history — starting a new program from scorched earth and reaching the Canadian nationals within four seasons.
Coincidentally, the Gee-Gees haven’t qualified for the national tournament since 2003-04 when they lost out to a Saint FX team whose captain was none other than Grandmaître.
“It’s been a crazy ride,” says Grandmaître, fresh off the ice from a 7 a.m. practice at the Minto Sports Complex to prepare for Saturday’s OUA championship game in Guelph. “I wasn’t even sure they would hire me because of my lack of coaching experience. They called and said, you got the job.
“I had to get my ducks in order. Figure this out.”
From 2010-15 Grandmaître was a physical education teacher at Gatineau’s Collège Nouvelles-Frontières, where he helped launch a hockey program and coached. When he assumed his new duties at the U of O, Grandmaître was given an alumni sponsored fund of $112,500 to begin a scholarship program for 25 new student athletes.
Recruiting beneath the black cloud of the previous regime was a nightmare at times, even for an optimist like Grandmaître. He lost track of the number of rejections and unreturned calls. Yet, as a former player himself — in the QMJHL Canadian college ranks and four years as a pro in Germany — he also understood.
Why would players want to take a chance on a school overcoming a reputation issue, with a rookie coach and no players? Sometimes it took the extra mile.
Grandmaitre’s first successful recruit, Matt Dunlop, signed on after Grandmaître went for a bike ride around Ottawa and Gatineau with Dunlop and his father. The unofficial Tour de Gatineau put the wheels of a hockey program in motion.
Hired by a committee that included Ottawa Senators co-founder Cyril Leeder and former Senators head coach Jacques Martin, Grandmaître listened closely to Martin’s advice to find quality people, above all. These new players were going to face scrutiny and hear trash talk. They would have to rise above it.
On the evidence, the taint of a sex scandal is enduring.
Just last week, in the OUA East final against Concordia, the Gee-Gees heard taunts from members of the Concordia football team, sitting behind the Ottawa players bench.
“No means no!!” yelled the football players, chanting an anti-sexual assault slogan.
“I just took it as noise,” says Gee-Gees defenceman Jacob Sweeney, a former Moncton Wildcats player in the QMJHL. “I played long enough in the Q with bigger crowds — that was more fun than anything to me. Our fans were right behind the football players with noisemakers. It sounded like they were all cheering for us.”
Sweeney was that rare major junior recruit who took a chance with Grandmaître’s budding program. Most of the new Gee-Gees came from Junior ‘A’ ranks, with Grandmaître scooping up team captains and alternate captains in a quest for character. If a coach told him “you can’t go wrong with this kid,” he took it to the bank.
“We found 25 kids that were ready to rock and do something special,” Grandmaître says. “It’s so much fun that a lot of those kids are still here, in their last year. We’re going to nationals, that is for sure. But we also have a chance to win the OUA championship that our school has never won.
“In this format, our school has never won the Queen’s Cup (OUA championship), so hopefully we get it done.”
After the Gee-Gees finished off Concordia to clinch a berth in the nationals, following earlier series wins over Ontario Tech and UQTR, Grandmaitre stood in a corner of the victorious dressing room and fought back tears.
“I’m an emotional guy and it almost got to me there,” he says. “I hung in.”
He was beyond proud of his team, but also relieved. Last season, the Gee-Gees had the best regular season in school history (22-2-1) but lost in round two of the playoffs after two key centres, Yvan Mongo and Jacob Hanlon, got injured. In March of 2019, Grandmaître was awarded the George Kehoe Memorial Award as U Sports Coach of the Year.
This season wasn’t as consistent, but the Gee-Gees rallied late in the season for what is the last hurrah for the current group: Seventeen of his 20 starters are graduating and moving on.
“Seeing them rejoice, I could see their pride and a sense of — ‘We did it!’ — it’s almost unbelievable,” Grandmaître says. “I know how hard these kids have worked and the risks they took to be here. People would say, ‘why go to the U of O instead of somewhere else?’”
Now 40, Grandmaître has watched his own family grow along with the team. He and his wife, Jani Lalonde, had one son when he was hired by the university. Today they have three boys — Louis, six years old, Edward, four, and Frederic, two.
Patrick’s father, Jean-Marc Grandmaître, was a fine player himself, scoring 111 points for the 1976-77 Hull Olympiques of the QMJHL. Another local hero.
“The beauty of my story is that I am doing it from home,” Grandmaître says. “My family, my parents and my grandmother come to the games. I wouldn’t get this anywhere else in the world.”
Asked if he is more proud of his other kids — his players — for their conduct on the ice or off it, Grandmaître pauses to reflect. Partly due to the inherited scandal, Grandmaitre has demanded a lot of his players, including regular 7 a.m. practices so players don’t miss class.
“As a dad, you always worry what your kids are doing when you’re not there,” he says. “So multiply that by 28 or 29. That is a big source of pride how our guys have conducted themselves off the ice, and in the classroom. We had eight academic all-Canadians this year.
“The system we have put in is quite hard, with multiple mandatory workouts on top of our 7 am practices. Not many programs have that.”
Having a core group that has been here from Day 1 is key, Grandmaître says.
“When new guys come in they look around and say, ‘well these guys aren’t complaining,’” Grandmaître says. “It’s just the way it is here.”
From the outside, Saturday’s Queen’s Cup game — one-night, winner take-all — is a tough call. Both Guelph and Ottawa pride themselves on their work ethic. The Gryphons score more, but also give up more goals than the Gee-Gees. With both teams assured a berth in the nationals next week, there is a fallback position.
After that, most of these Gee-Gees will be graduating, with their coach’s blessing.
“It’s pretty cool that they are all going on to play hockey or work,” Grandmaître says.
“They are all going to be so successful in life, because they are good people who work hard. They are team players and that all translates well into the next phase of life.”
What is a Gee-Gee?
In the 19th century, teams were often known by their uniform colours, garnet and grey in this case. Those initials “GG” evolved to “Gee-Gee,” the British nickname for a racehorse.
Three key Gee-Gees
Cody Drover, Forward
Born: Grand Falls-Windsor, NL.
Size: 6-foot, 188 pounds.
2019/20 stats: GP: 27 | G: six | A: 17 | PTS: 23
The All-Time Assists Leader: With 91 assists over his four-year college career, Drover owns the Gee-Gees record for helpers at a school that first iced a hockey team in 1889.
The quote: “Pat’s done a great job with us. If you look at our roster and lineup, on paper we don’t match up. But we leave it all on the ice every shift and that’s one of the things Pat preaches, and it has really come to fruition here. We have character players. I think 17 of us were either captains or assistants on previous teams.”
Matt Dunlop, Defenceman
Born: Stouffville, ONT.
Size: 5-foot-10, 160 pounds.
2019-20 stats: GP: 28 | G: two | A: four | PTS: six
The First Recruit: Dunlop had other hockey options, including the NCAA, but instinctively knew from Grandmaître’s demeanour and personality, he could build a winner.
“There was a huge opportunity here,” Dunlop says. “Someplace else I may have started at the bottom. Here, you make your opportunities what they are because you are walking into a brand new program. It was really cool having that opportunity. The uncertainty itself
was cool, you got to be part of something new.”
On reaching the nationals: “It’s been a long time coming. We came in as underdogs and every year, we proved people wrong. Our first year, people were saying we weren’t going to do very well, and we surprised everyone (by making the playoffs).
“There is so much buy in from the group, everyone works hard to give us a chance to win.”
The quote: “If you had asked me the first day to project four
years ahead, this would be the dream. In my fourth year, we’re going to nationals and playing for the Queen’s Cup. It’s been something special.”
Jacob Sweeney, Defenceman
Born: Quebec City.
Size: 6-foot-4, 215 pounds.
2019-20 stats: GP: 24 | G: one | A: seven | PTS: eight
The most important recruit: Until Sweeney, major junior grads avoided the Garnet and Grey like the plague. Coming off a 2014-15 season in which he scored 17 goals for the Moncton Wildcats, tied for the QMJHL lead among defenceman, Sweeney was in demand. At 19 he got a long look at a New Jersey
Devils training camp. With myriad school options, he chose Ottawa.
“I took a leap of faith, just due to the relationship Pat had built with me, and the trust,” Sweeney says. “I committed over the phone. The next day I was getting phone calls from every team and I said, ‘a little too late, guys.’”
Grandmaître recruited Sweeney early and hard, flying out to visit him in Moncton. On the night of his visit, the Wildcats got blown out by a lesser team. Three of Moncton’s 20-year-olds were supposed to meet Grandmaitre, but Sweeney was the only one who showed.
On his goal-scoring spree in the Q: “I think I was ninth in the league in goals. I was in the slot between Conor Garland and Ivan Barbashev — it worked out for me.”
The Gee-Gees style of play: “Hard-nosed, in your face. We’re going to outwork you. When we’re doing that, we win hockey games. And when we’re not, we are a completely different team. We had to find that consistency this season, and once we did we became the powerhouse we were supposed to be.”
The quote: “Pat’s personality is unreal, bar none. He cares about
his players, cares more about you as a person than as a hockey player, which I think is really important as a coach. He built a program knowing there was a grey area that couldn’t be crossed. There’s a social aspect to being a student-athlete on campus and
we had to rebuild that relationship between us and the student body.”