The Canisius College hockey team has a rich tradition that began as the vision of one man and grew into a NCAA Division I program. Dr. David Dietz, professor of classics and the father of Canisius hockey, has seen it evolve from the first day of practice as a club team to the move from the ECAC West to its current place in the Atlantic Hockey Association.
Canisius hockey was born in fall 1971. In spring 1972, the club saw the true beginning of the program - its first win. The program went 6-2-0 and played a mix of intercollegiate and club teams.
In April 1973, Canisius was accepted into the Finger Lakes Collegiate Hockey League for play beginning in fall 1974. The FLCHL gave the Griffs the opportunity to play a consistent schedule against a mix of teams from Western and Central New York. The Griffs went 10-2-0 and finished first during the regular season in the inaugural season of the FLCHL (1973-74).
The club hit its pinnacle during the 1974-75 season as the Griffs finished with a 15-2-0 record and defeated St. John Fisher in the league's championship game, 7-0. Proving that the previous year was no fluke, Canisius took its second straight postseason crown by defeating the Geneseo Ice Knights, 5-2, for the FLCHL Championship.
With great success during the previous two seasons, it was evident the Griffs were moving to another level. Seeing this, Dr. Dietz chose to step aside as the club team's coach.
That change came in the form of University at Buffalo graduate Mike Kelly. Kelly began coaching during the 1976-77 season. The Griffs finished 9-6-4, falling to Erie Community College in the league's championship game. Kelly was named FLCHL Coach of the Year.
Canisius met ECC in the 1977-78 FLCHL Championship game and were stymied by the Ice Kats for the second year in a row, 8-4.
Canisius went 17-10-2 and won the 1978-79 FLCHL Championship with a 6-4 decision over Niagara-Welland in the league's title game. Mike Denz was named tournament MVP.
The 1979-80 ice hockey season ended an era in Canisius athletics as the club hockey team would lace up their skates for the last time before moving to varsity status. The Griffs concluded this chapter in Canisius history with a 5-4 victory over Mohawk College in the inaugural Championship of the International Collegiate Hockey League.
The Move to Division III
The Griffs began Division III play with a new look. Brian Cavanaugh would take over the program and would lead the Griffs for 23 of the next 24 years. Canisius earned its first-ever NCAA victory on Nov. 22, 1980 with a 7-4 win over Niagara Welland and ended the season with a 13-12-2 record.
Canisius continued its success in its second season of play, posting its second-straight winning season with a 16-12-1 mark. Cavanaugh would leave his position as head coach for one season in 1982 and Carl Koeppel would assume the reins. The Griffs would struggle the next two years under Koeppel and Cavanaugh, posting records of 9-16-1 and 5-21-1. However, Canisius would respond in 1984.
During the fall of 1984, a new generation of Griffs would arrive on campus and the school record books would be rewritten behind three future Canisius Hall of Famers. Joe Federico, Kevin Sykes and Mike Torrillo would all leave their mark on the Canisius hockey program before graduating.
The Griffs turned things around to begin the 1984-85 season. After posting two-consecutive losing seasons, Canisius won four of its first five games en route to a 15-12-2 record. The 9.5 game turnaround from the 1983-84 season remains the greatest improvement in one season during school history. Sykes would lead the Griffs in scoring during his rookie season, posting 54 points on 28 goals and 26 assists. Federico registered one of the greatest seasons by a defender, recording 31 points and a school-record 27 assists.
The 1985-86 season would once again show the promise of the Canisius hockey team. The Griffs posted an 18-9-2 record and would earn the program's first-ever postseason bid. Canisius squared off with Elmira in the ECAC West Quarterfinals but the Soaring Eagles would emerge victorious, 6-3. Torrillo led the Griffs in scoring, posting 71 points on 27 goals and a school-record 44 assists.
During the 1986-87 season, the Griffs would advance one step further. The team won a school-record 21 games during the regular season and earned a second-straight trip to the ECAC West Quarterfinals. The Griffs faced RIT in Rochester and won its first-ever postseason game with a 2-0 victory. However, Canisius' run would end in the semifinals, falling to Plattsburgh, 9-4. Torrillo once again led the team in scoring, posting 69 points on a program-best 36 goals plus 33 assists.
The three seniors wrapped up their Hall of Fame careers during the 1987-88 campaign, posting a 15-12-0 record. Canisius would earn a chance at redemption against Plattsburgh, squaring off against the Cardinals in the ECAC Quarterfinals. However, Plattsburgh would once again eliminate the Griffs, winning 6-3. Torrillo once again led the Griffs in scoring, setting his third school record with 74 points on 33 goals and 41 assists.
Torrillo and Sykes graduated as the top two scorers in school history and it still remains that way 25 seasons later. Torrillo owns the program's top marks with 265 points, 121 goals and 144 assists. Sykes ranks second with 234 points, 114 goals and 120 assists. Federico registered 102 points on 18 goals and 84 assists. His point total and assist total are still records for Canisius defensemen.
With the loss of the three players, the Griffs fell below .500 during the 1988-89 season but still managed to grab it fourth-consecutive playoff berth. However, the Griffs experienced a similar postseason result, losing in the ECAC West Quarterfinals to Union, 6-3. Mike Sisti proved to be the new leader of the Griffs, recording 57 points on 33 goals and 24 assists. Sisti ranks fourth in school history with 163 points on 74 points and 89 assists and was inducted into the Canisius Hall of Fame in 2002.
The Griffs struggled through the four seasons after its 1989 playoff appearance. For the first time in school history, Canisius went four-straight years without a winning season. However, the Griffs responded with nine-consecutive winning seasons, their longest run in the program's history.
Canisius' winning ways began in the 1992-93 season, posting an 18-11-1 record, including a 17-6-1 mark against ECAC West opponents. The Griffs earned its first postseason bid in five years, defeating Mercyhurst in the ECAC West Semifinals, 5-3, before falling to Elmira, 2-1, in the championship game. The season also included the most dominating win in school history, a 22-1 victory over Scranton.
The Griffs returned to the postseason the next two seasons, falling in the semifinals to RIT both seasons. Canisius lost to the Tigers to end the 1993-94 campaign, 4-3. The Griffs' defeat at the end of the 1994-95 season is the longest game in school history, going into two overtimes before RIT won, 5-4.
Canisius returned to championship form once again during the 1995-96 campaign, led by Josh Oort. The future Canisius Hall of Famer, Oort would lead the Griffs to an 18-7-2 record and the postseason for a fourth-straight year. The Griffs would defeat Mercyhurst, 6-2, before once again falling to RIT in overtime, 3-2, in the championship. Oort would post 44 points on 15 goals and 29 assists to lead the Griffs' offense for the first of three-consecutive seasons. Oort, who ranks third in school history with 172 career points, joined Torrillo as the only Griffs to lead the team in scoring in three-straight seasons.
The Griffs finished play at the Division III level with two more playoff berths. For the third-consecutive season, Canisius lost to RIT in overtime to end its season, falling to the Tigers, 3-2, in the semifinals. The Griffs' final season at Division III ended with a loss to rival Niagara, 4-1, in the ECAC West Semifinals.
The Division I Era
Before the 1997-98 season, Canisius announced it would move to Division I and joined the newly-formed MAAC Hockey League beginning in 1998. The Griffs would now take on the strongest competition in the NCAA and looked to continue its success at the new level.
Canisius began its new era in style, posting a 16-15-5 record and advancing to the MAAC Championship in its first season. As the No. 4 seed, the Griffs topped fifth-seeded AIC, 7-4, in the quarterfinals and upset top-seeded Quinnipiac in the semifinals, 5-2, before falling to Holy Cross in the championship, 4-3.
Individually, Chris Duggan and David Deeves enjoyed successful seasons for the Griffs in their first season at the Division I level. Duggan set single-season records with 48 points, 22 goals and 26 assists - marks that stood for 12 years - and Deeves recorded 34 points on 18 goals and 16 assists.
The duo would lead the Griffs during the next three seasons. Despite Duggan missing most of the 1999-00 season due to injury, the Griffs would match a school record with 21 wins but would fall in the MAAC Quarterfinals to Iona, 4-3. Goalie Sean Weaver would step up in Duggan's absence and was named the MAAC Goaltender of the Year.
Duggan would return for the 2000-01 season, posting his second-best season with 35 points. The Griffs finished the season with a 17-12-4 record and defeated Connecticut, 4-1 in the MAAC Quarterfinals before falling to Mercyhurst, 4-3, in the semifinals.
The first class in the Division I era would end their careers in the 2002 MAAC Quarterfinals, falling to Sacred Heart, 3-2 in overtime. Deeves and Duggan finished their careers ranked first and second, respectively, in the program's Division I record book, marks that would stand for the next eight years as the program grew from what the duo started as freshmen.
The Griffs struggled through a 2002-03 season, compiling a 12-21-4 record, However, the year was highlighted by hosting the 2003 Frozen Four at HSBC Arena where Minnesota defeated New Hampshire, 5-1.
The next two seasons marked a time of change for Canisius. The Griffs left the MAAC after the 2002-03 season and joined the newly-formed Atlantic Hockey Association. Cavanaugh would also end his Canisius career after an amazing 341 victories at the helm of the Golden Griffin program.
Dave Smith was named the Golden Griffins' third coach on April 15, 2005. Smith has had an immediate impact in short time in charge of the program.
Smith made a splash right from the start of his career with his first full recruiting class earning 12 weekly awards during the 2006-07 season. The program also started to see progress in its results.
In October of 2007, Canisius played No. 17 St. Cloud State to a 3-3 draw, marking the team’s first-ever point against a nationally-ranked school. The Griffs took it one step farther during the 2008-09 campaign when Canisius swept a pair of game at nationally-ranked Air Force. The wins against the No. 15 Falcons marked the first victories for Canisius over a ranked opponent in the program’s history. During this time, the Griffs also recorded victories over a CCHA foe (Ferris State) and an ECAC school (Clarkson), while tying a Hockey East opponent (Merrimack) – all first in the school’s history.
The 2008-09 season was capped by Dave Kostuch earning Atlantic Hockey Rookie of the Year accolades with juniors Carl Hudson and Jason Weeks being named to the all-conference third team.
The Griffs continued their climb up the ladder during the 2009-10 campaign, ranking among the nation's elite, earning individual accolades and watching a number of records fall.
Cory Conacher opened his junior season with a hat trick against Lake Superior State and didn't slow down the rest of the way. Conacher became the first Griff to garner Atlantic Hockey Player of the Year accolades and set a number of school records. He totaled 53 points and 33 assists, the most in the program's Division I history, while ranking second nationally with 1.51 points per game. Conacher was joined on the all-conference team by Hudson and junior Vincent Scarsella, who earned second and third-team honors, respectively.
The 2009-10 campaign also marked the final season for Smith's first full recruiting class and the group did not disappoint. The Class of 2010 helped Canisius to one of its most successful seasons in the program's early Division I history - earning its most wins in nine years and advancing to the Atlantic Hockey Semifinals for the first time since 2004.
The success of the class did not end as the Canisius season came to an end. Seven members of the team went on to play professional hockey, including Hudson, who became the first Griff to sign an NHL contract after joining the Florida Panthers.
Conacher returned for his senior campaign the next season and helped lead a young Canisius squad. On a team that featured 10 freshmen, Conacher became the first player in the program's history to record two 40-point seasons, leading the Griffs with 42 points on a school-record 23 goals and 19 assists. Named to the Lowe's Senior CLASS Award All-America First Team, Conacher graduated with 12 career, single-season and single-game records, which includes career marks in points (147), goals (62) and game-winning tallies (12).
Following his graduation, Conacher would continue his success at the professional level. During the 2011-12 season with the AHL's Norfolk Admirals, Conacher became the fourth player in the league's history to garner MVP and Rookie of the Year accolades in the same year. He capped the season by lifting the Calder Cup with the Admirals. Conacher upped his game the following season and became the first Griff to appear in an NHL game. The former Canisius standout scored a goal in his NHL debut with the Tampa Bay Lightning – becoming the first Atlantic Hockey player to record a tally in the world’s top league – and has accumulated 29 points, 11 goals and 18 assists in 47 games with Tampa Bay and the Ottawa Senators.
A Championship Season
Forty-two years after Dr. Dietz formed the program and after 33 seasons of competing at the NCAA level, the Canisius hockey team finally reached the top and claimed a championship during the 2012-13 campaign. Smith led the Griffs to their first Atlantic Hockey crown during the season and the team’s first trip to the NCAA Tournament.
The title did not come easy for Canisius but the team played its best hockey of the year with its season on the line. The Griffs opened the month of March with a two-game sweep against conference nemesis RIT, its first weekend sweep in the 61-game series history with the Tigers. The two wins secured Canisius a home series to start the Atlantic Hockey Tournament as the No. 7 seed.
Canisius opened the tournament with convincing victories against No. 10 Bentley in a two-game series sweep. The Griffs then traveled to play second-seeded Air Force in the league’s quarterfinals. The Falcons were the two-time defending Atlantic Hockey Champions and had claimed five of the last six titles but Canisius emerged victorious with another two-game sweep. Kyle Gibbons led the Griffs’ in the opener, scoring with 9.1 seconds remaining for a 4-3 victory with Duncan McKellar then finishing the sweep with an overtime goal in the second game for another 4-3 win and a trip to the Atlantic Hockey Semifinals.
Making the trip to Rochester for the league’s championship weekend, Canisius faced a familiar opponent in rival Niagara. The Purple Eagles claimed the league’s regular-season title and was ranked 15th nationally in the polls but the Griffs earned the 5-3 win to advance to their first Atlantic Hockey Championship. In the title game, Canisius raced past Mercyhurst, 7-2, for the program’s first championship. Gibbons was named tournament MVP after posting four points, two goals and two assists in the title game and was joined on the All-Tournament Team by forward Tyler Wiseman, defender Ben Danford and goalkeeper Tony Capobianco.
Canisius won a school-record eight-straight games to win its first league title. In their NCAA Tournament debut, the Griffs played top-ranked Quinnipiac in the NCAA East Regional Semifinal. Canisius held a 3-1 third-period lead before the Bobcats scored the game’s final three goals for a 4-3 victory en route to an appearance in the NCAA title game.