Controversy was raging in Halifax in March of 2011 over the cancellation of the women’s hockey program at Saint Mary’s University when Lisa Jordan took a phone call that would alter the course of her successful career.
It was from Ivan Joseph, the brash athletic director at Ryerson University in Toronto, who sensed an opportunity to hire away one of the country’s top hockey coaches to head up his school’s first venture into women’s intercollegiate play.
Although Saint Mary’s quickly bowed to public pressure and reinstated the women’s program, Jordan had no qualms about turning her back on a 14-year investment and moving to Toronto.
Jordan was swept up by Joseph’s optimistic vision of transforming Ryerson athletics from a perennial laughingstock to a national powerhouse. And although the Rams went 1-23 in her first season (2011-12), the coach has no regrets.
“You got the sense it wasn’t just talk,” Jordan said in a recent interview. “They meant business as they showed by the purchase of Maple Leaf Gardens. That was a clear indication to me how serious they were about the quality of the school’s athletic program.”
Ryerson celebrated the official opening of its new $60-million facility at the former hockey haven on Carlton Street in downtown Toronto last week.
Now known as the Mattamy Athletic Centre at the Gardens, the facility includes a 2,600-seat hockey arena, along with a 1,000-person capacity venue for basketball and volleyball.
Ryerson officials view the building as a launching pad into a new era of athletic competition – where the ultimate goal is to challenge the University of Toronto and York University as the city’s pre-eminent intercollegiate sports setting.
“I think what you will see, if all goes according to plan, that Ryerson will be the powerhouse in university athletics in Ontario, and likely Canada,” Ryerson president Sheldon Levy said.
That is a pretty bold statement when you consider that, from a Canadian Interuniversity Sport perspective, Ryerson’s success rate has been pretty thin, qualifying just three teams to national championships since 1999.
Ryerson ran 11 programs in Ontario University Athletics in 2011-12, and only the men’s basketball team played in the final tournament.
By comparison, the U of T, which supports 46 intercollegiate teams participating in 26 sports, celebrated five OUA titles (men’s tennis, women’s water polo, women’s field hockey, men’s swimming, men’s baseball) in 2011-12.
The Blues men’s swimming team earned a silver medal at nationals, while the women’s team finished third. The previous year, the school’s field hockey team won gold at nationals.
Joseph, who is entering his fifth year as Ryerson AD, said he is certain all the ingredients are there to transform the downtown Toronto school into a leading postsecondary sports institution in Canada.
“I believe that athletics is the front door of a university,” he said. “And if your teams aren’t winning, then they don’t have the chance to increase the reputation of your university. I think it’s important that we have a facility [Mattamy Athletic Centre] that allows us the opportunity to be able to attract the best student athletes.”
With Levy’s support, Joseph has gone out and recruited some of the country’s top coaches to Ryerson, including Jordan and Roy Rana, who leads the men’s basketball team. Rana joined Ryerson after nine years at Eastern Commerce Collegiate Institute in Toronto, where he led the Saints to four Ontario championships.
Joseph said having a new athletic facility retrofitted into one of the country’s most iconic hockey arenas certainly helps.
Graham Wise, Ryerson men’s hockey coach, has enjoyed strong recruiting years since word spread the former home of the Toronto Maple Leafs was to be the new home of the Rams.
The 2011-12 team included 18 rookies, and the Rams enjoyed their first winning season (13-12-3) since 1988-89.
Jordan said that when she is recruiting players for the women’s hockey team, more often than not, it is the player’s parents who are most excited about the new facility.
“It just feels surreal, to be honest with you, just to be inside that building and to know all the history that’s behind it,” she said.
Beth Ali, the athletic director at the U of T, said she welcomes all the brash talk emanating from the crosstown rival, it helps boost healthy competition. It could also have the effect of a bit of a wake-up call for the country’s largest university.
“I would say one of the things that we’re looking at is setting our sights on more national banners, more top-three finishes,” Ali said. “In that area, we think we have a little bit of work to do.”
Men’s basketball coach. Hired by Ryerson in 2009, Rana came to the Rams on the strength of being one of Ontario’s most successful high-school coaches. In his nine years at Eastern Commerce Collegiate Institute, Rana led the Saints to four Ontario titles with in impressive overall record of 256-39. In just his third season at Ryerson, Rana guided the Rams to their first CIS Final 8 appearance since 1999.
Women’s hockey coach. When Ryerson decided to join the OUA women’s league for the first time for the 2011-12 season, they hired one of the country’s top coaches for the job. Jordan cemented her reputation through 14 seasons at Saint Mary’s University, where she led the Huskies to eight Atlantic conference finals, taking the title in 1998, 2003, 2004 and 2010. Jordan was also as an assistant coach with the Canadian national women’s team that won a silver medal at the 2011 world championship in Switzerland.
Women’s basketball coach. Clarke is the newest coach to jump to Ryerson, accepting the job last June, after three seasons as the head coach at the University of Prince Edward Island. Clarke is considered one of Canada’s up-and-coming younger coaches, leading the Canadian cadet women’s team to a bronze medal at the 2011 FIBA Americas under-16 championship.