The uOttawa Gee-Gees had high hopes heading into the 2023-24 season. After two seasons ended in close playoff losses, the team was ready to take the next step.
After coach Chelsea Grills’s springtime departure, assistant coach Stefanie McKeough was promoted to lead the team. There were high hopes for the team under McKeough, but after the season’s opening game, McKeough was hired by the PWHL team in Boston, leaving uOttawa without a head coach. Her assistants, Greg Bowles and Jennifer Wakefield, were thrust into the top role and now lead the team as co-coaches.
After the Oct. 19 departure of McKeough, the Gee-Gees won their next two games, which were against the bottom two teams in the league. Then, uOttawa lost five straight between Oct. 29 and Nov. 18. The team was outscored by opponents 20 – 8 in a three-week-beatdown that dropped them to the bottom of the playoff picture.
The change was disruptive to the team rhythm, according to now co-coach Greg Bowles. “Anytime you lose a presence like that, it takes a moment. It’s a bit of punch,” he said to reporters following a game on Nov. 19.
Despite the challenges, the players have put their heads down and powered through. “These girls, to the credit of every single one of them, never said poor me or found an excuse – they’ve gotten up every single day to be better,” said Bowles.
uOttawa had a two-win weekend on Nov. 18 and 19, beating the McGill Martlets and Carleton in the annual Colonel By Classic at TD Place arena.
Though most university sports receive minimal attention in Canada, the games between Ottawa rivals Carleton and uOttawa are big draws. The annual football game between the two, dubbed the Panda Game, draws a crowd of 25,000 fans. Unlike NCAA schools, Canadian schools are lucky if their games eclipse 1000 fans.
Carleton and uOttawa play their rivalry games at the local professional stadium instead of their on-campus arenas to accommodate the increased attendance.
The Colonel By Classic is the annual hockey showdown between the schools. Though it has no unique significance in league play, the game holds meaning for the players and fans.
Carleton and uOttawa were one point apart in league standings ahead of the weekend, but the day before the rivalry game, uOttawa’s win and Carleton’s loss put some distance between the two in the standings. With Carleton, the only likely challenger for uOttawa’s playoff spot, the Colonel By Classic was a must-win for both sides.
The two teams started with intensity, but uOttawa quickly took control of the game, hammering Carleton with shots. Late in the first period, uOttawa scored moments after the end of a Carleton penalty. A bouncing puck landed in the slot, and Katherine Birkby sent a backhand over the glove of Caitlin Whitehead for a single-goal lead.
Midway through the second period, uOttawa scored again, seconds into their 5-on-3 powerplay. A floater from Arianne Gagnon took a deflection, doubling the lead.
Carleton responded with intermittent intensity that pulled them even in shots. But the few dangerous chances for the Ravens were turned aside by uOttawa goalie Mahika Sarrazin.
Late in the second, uOttawa came close to another goal as Whitehead was caught out of her net, but she managed to poke the puck away from the advancing forward while falling over. The chaotic play resulted in a rush the other way.
Abigail Byrne ripped a shot from close range that blew by the goalie. It was Byrne’s first goal as a Raven, making it a one-goal game with an entire period to play.
The physical intensity also grew as hits rocked players on both sides without intervention by the referees. Mid-way through the third period, hits by both teams lead to players getting hurt and needing assistance off the ice. Neither was penalized by the officials, which Carleton coach Stacey Colarossi disagreed with. Bowles called the collisions unintentional.
The game remained at a narrow margin, and despite Carleton’s 6-on-4 efforts in the final minute, uOttawa hung on for the win.
Colarossi wasn’t happy with the performance her team brought, calling them inconsistent. “We didn’t know what was coming from one shift to the next out of our group today,” said Colarossi after the game.
Though many praised the performance of uOttawa’s goaltender, Colarossi was critical of the Carleton forwards. “I don’t think they were shooting to score; they were just putting pucks on net.”
As a result of the game, the Gee-Gees are in fourth place, the final playoff spot. The team has a .500 record. Carleton sits five points back of the Gee-Gees’ position.
Coach Bowles said the Gee-Gees will take this momentum and keep moving forward. “Jen and I have had a plan since day one, and that’s about progress. We need to be getting better every single day,” he told reporters. “We’re turning a corner and starting to get rewarded for doing the little things. Hopefully, the girls see that.”
The Gee-Gees are in high spirits and ready to take on the last 15 games of the season. “We prepared all week and worked hard,” said uOttawa goaltender Mahika Sarrazin speaking in French following the game. “We were due two good victories this weekend,” she said.