OSWEGO — After being forced off the ice by the COVID-19 pandemic last season, the Oswego State men’s hockey team is “certainly excited” to get back at it for the 2021-22 season, head coach Ed Gosek said.
The Lakers’ begin their season with practices on Monday, and have their first exhibition game on Oct. 16 against Utica College.
By the time the Pioneers come to town, it will have been 588 days since Oswego State played a game. That game was March 7, 2020, in the SUNYAC championship game against SUNY Geneseo.
But first, the coaching staff has to get 21 new players acclimated to Oswego State hockey, including 14 that have never played college hockey before.
“You watch them in juniors or with their previous schools, you have an idea of what they can do,” Gosek said. “But as we’ve said to all of them, it’s a clean slate. Even our returners. … It really is, when I say wide open, for playing time, for positions, for ice times, for special teams.”
Oswego State has just eight returners from the 2019-20 season, after losing five players to graduation. None of the players elected to take advantage of the extra year of eligibility from the NCAA.
Six of the eight players coming back from the Lakers’ most recent season are seniors: Tyler Antonucci, Josh LeBlanc, Travis Broughman, Steven Kozikoski, Ryan Bunka and Tyson Kirkby.
Alex DiCarlo and Mac Lewis, the remaining returners, are both juniors.
“We’re just starving to get on the ice. We can’t wait until there’s another team in that locker room,” LeBlanc said. “It’s been a long time coming. The whole summer’s been in anticipation to get back to school and get in the swing of things.”
This season, Gosek brought in five transfers from Division I programs. Four of them came from programs that were shut down by the schools, the University of Alaska-Anchorage and Robert Morris University.
Gosek added that all five are “humble guys” who haven’t come in with a “Division I mentality.”
“Put yourself in their situation. You’re having your schooling paid for and you’re part of a program, and there was really no forewarning at either school that the programs were going to be dropped,” he said. “They’re all grateful for a second opportunity and excited to be here and excited to be part of something special.”
Now that it’s been over a year since Gosek has seen his team on the ice, a lot of what the coaching staff has noticed about players, both new and returning, revolves around the team’s chemistry.
During the offseason, players did a “Laker Takeover” on the team’s Instagram account, allowing fans and teammates to see what a day in the life was like back home for each individual player. With the power of social media, the players were able to learn more about their new teammates before even stepping foot on campus, such as favorite meals, their hometown rink or seeing different family members.
In the team’s media day press conference, Gosek added that Lewis’s takeover was the favorite, with LeBlanc calling him “the farm boy favorite.”
“What I really like, and maybe it’ll change once ice time is rewarded or taken away, but the chemistry, it’s just, for some years, you can sense it, you can feel it,” Gosek said. “You can see by their actions and their body language, it’s been a very positive experience.”
With the new chunk of players, Gosek said the team is “cautiously optimistic” heading into the season. Not only has it been seven years since the Lakers took home a SUNYAC title — last being crowned champions in 2014 — but it’s also been 15 years since Oswego State won the NCAA Division III National Championship.
Even though it’s been 15 years for the latter, Gosek, said teams “still want to knock (them) off since that year.”
“When you get there (the national championship), it’s climbing the mountain to get on top. It’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun. … You learn to appreciate how hard it is,” Gosek said. “Fifteen years, it doesn’t seem that long ago. It seems like yesterday, as far as certain plays that resonate in my head that happened throughout the game.”
Gosek, who’s entering his 18th season as head coach of Oswego State said, all-in-all, there was a period of reflection during the lost year. As echoed by Bunka, Broughman and LeBlanc, the common saying of not appreciating something until it’s been taken away from, is prominent this season.
While this year’s seniors will carry the banner for the five players that graduated last year — LeBlanc said those players “get solidified in that spot” from where their junior year ended — the focus is all on the ice.
“I will be as excited as (the players) are. I also think the reflection during this time period, not that you lost a love for the game, but you start looking at yourself and say, ‘How can I be better? What do I need to do?’” Gosek said. “I have to make it more fun for me. That doesn’t mean you work any less hard or don’t have the desire to win or be successful. … Just through this whole pandemic, it’s made us all realize that we need to work extremely hard but have fun doing it and let the chips fly.”