The Brock Badgers have begun to prepare for the 18th annual Steel Blade Classic, as they renew their rivalry with the Guelph Gryphons. The game will return to the Meridian Centre for the second consecutive year, with expectations for another sell-out crowd looming for the Badgers.
The Steel Blade Classic started back in 1999, and in 2016 it was changed from a weekend tournament to a single winner-take-all game. Last year also marked the debut of the Steel Blade Classic at the Meridian Centre, a tradition that will continue after last year’s success.
“As of last year, it’s one game, the thought behind that was to create a big event, build a rivalry in a positive way, which helps the communities,” said Neil Lumsden, Brock’s Director of Athletics.
The response from students and members of Brock was overwhelming with a packed Meridian Centre last September. Lumsden also noted that the tailgate party and other extra-curricular events surrounding the game had great success.
“The tailgate concept and pregame party resonate with alumni, they can spend three-fourths of their day as a Brock Badger,” Lumsden said.
While the game is exhibition, it certainly isn’t viewed that way by the students and alumni; to them the game is extremely important. Last year, the Badgers topped the Gryphons 4-3 in a thrilling all-out battle by both teams. The rivalry saw much more physical play with a line brawl, resulting in ejections. The heated exchange comes with the expectation of the major event.
In late July, Murray Nystrom (who had been at the helm of the men’s hockey program since 1998) and Brock Sports parted ways. An odd time for a coaching change to occur, but nonetheless, with the Steel Blade Classic under two months away, Neil Lumsden had to work fast to find a replacement.
With overwhelming interest in the position, Lumsden noted that it’s a great compliment to the school and athletics department, as well as Murray for his work with the team over the past 19 years.
“I had 28 people reach out to me in the first 24 hours,” Lumsden said. “The university should be flattered by that.”
On August 9, Marty Williamson was announced as Brock’s interim head coach. Williamson took a one-year coaching hiatus after previously coaching the OHL Niagara IceDogs from 2010-2016. Williamson said that his family was thrilled at the news that he would be the new bench boss for the Badgers.
“We love the area, there’s only so many head coaching jobs [here] that are high profile, and that’s the IceDogs and Brock,” Williamson added.
Though new to Brock Sports, Williamson knows just how important Friday night’s game is to the Badger faithful.
“The bottom line, it really is an exhibition game, but it’s not, it’s bigger than that,” said Williamson.
With the head coaching change coming so close to the start of the season, the challenges of getting acclimated with the program have a much greater emphasis with an early game that matters to Brock the way the Steel Blade does. “Finding out about the team, I know some of them from the OHL, so that helps me with those guys, but learning about them, putting lines together has been the challenge,” Williamson said of his veteran squad. “When everything settles after the Western game, the next couple of days will be pretty exciting getting ready for the game.”
Brock plays the Western Mustangs on Tuesday this week in an exhibition, and Williamson plans to make final cuts following that game, leaving only two days before the Steel Blade with the official roster.
A major change for Williamson will be recruiting. With almost 40 players trying out for the team this season, and the history Williamson brings to the job, Brock should expect to be competitive with other OUA schools for top players.
“I think the area is fantastic, Brock with the Sport Management program, the Goodman school, there’s so many different courses, we aren’t just isolated to one thing,” he said of the school, “I think I bring experience, I lived it, I think a lot of these guys have the dream that they want to play hockey after Brock, and that’s a big draw, lets keep pushing you hockey wise to see where you can go.”
When asked whether or not he is interested in staying as the Brock head coach beyond one season, Williamson said, “Absolutely, I’m invested in the program … It’s a dream come true to stay in the area, it’s exciting to see Neil’s vision for Brock, and to keep building the program.”
Last year, Lumsden and Guelph athletic director Scott McRoberts (who is a Brock alum) had a bet, and when Brock won, McRoberts spent a day on the Brock campus sporting a Badger jersey. When asked whether or not they’ve renewed their bet this year, Lumsden said, “I’ve laid it out to him, it’s almost like he’s very cautious. He said he’s not sure he can be at the game, but that doesn’t mean he can’t bet me. The fun part is, I coached at Guelph, he played tennis here, it’s a friendly competition between us, and it creates more hype.”
Regardless of statistical significance, the Steel Blade Classic this Friday is just as important as any other game to the Brock community. Badgers versus Gryphons, pre-season action, primetime, big stage. Here we go.