Home experience on the road: Lakehead Thunderwolves excited for Guelph’s Frosty Mug crowd

When the Lakehead University Thunderwolves men’s hockey team skates out for the Frosty Mug against the Guelph Gryphons, the thousands of fans might make it feel more like a home game than an away showcase.

The Thunderwolves, who play at the 4,680-capacity Fort William Gardens in Thunder Bay, Ont., regularly draw some of the largest crowds in Canadian university hockey, packing their arena throughout the regular season and often selling out in the playoffs, something many programs seldom dream of.

On Thursday, Lakehead visits Guelph in the Frosty Mug game, streaming live at 7:00 pm ET on cbcsports.ca[1], a winter homecoming for the University of Guelph as students flock to the city’s 5,100-person Ontario Hockey League arena, packing the stands for the annual January tradition.

“We’re so fortunate to be playing at the Fort William Gardens with such a great crowd,” Lakehead head coach and former Thunderwolves student-athlete Andrew Wilkins said. “Anytime you’re able to play in front of a crowd, it’s good for the league, and we’re lucky to be a part of it.”

Hockey players and referees stand in front of a sold out crowd for the national anthems.The Lakehead Thunderwolves men’s hockey program often fills the Fort Williams Gardens in Thunder Bay, Ont. (James Mirabelli/Lakehead Thunderwolves Hockey)

While many schools have showcase games, such as Brock University’s Steel Blade Classic, the University of British Columbia’s Winter Classic, or the Carr-Harris Cup between Queen’s University and the Royal Military College, Lakehead’s regular attendance rivals each of those weekly.

With no Canadian Hockey League team and few other options for sporting entertainment in Thunder Bay, the Thunderwolves have been able to drive revenue with the men’s hockey program, drawing on corporate sponsors partnered with community interest.

As nearly every other school operates men’s hockey like any other athletic program, based on funding from the athletic department, Thunderwolves hockey draws on the Lakehead Thunderwolves Varsity Hockey Corporation to drive the program to nearly unparalleled heights.

“We see ourselves as operating similarly to a pro team or a major junior team, and the Thunderwolves are kind of the big show in Thunder Bay, which is a historic hockey community,” said Kody Anton, the team’s Hockey Operations Coordinator. “Without our community and the corporate support, our team probably isn’t a reality due to our location and the expenses that come with being a men’s varsity hockey program.”

The Thunderwolves’ operations are similar to strategies used at points for the football programs at the Universite Laval and Carleton University, albeit in a less competitive sporting market, with the only competing hockey product being the Junior-A Thunder Bay North Stars.

With the passionate following and attendance, Lakehead has developed a strong men’s hockey program despite being one of the smaller schools in the province, paling in student population numbers compared to other large Ontario schools. Miles 1st OUA goal had the fans “JACK”ed up as he delivered just over a minute in! Thousands of Teddy Bears hit the ice in support of underprivileged families in our hometown ??#HearTheHowl pic.twitter.com/qlwt4VrvzO


The team has hosted the University Cup men’s hockey championship twice and won the OUA Queen’s Cup championship in 2006.

Last season, they came within a win of the national championship tournament, dropping the OUA bronze medal game to the Concordia University Stingers.

“I’ve never heard the arena so loud in my life, just the way that plays erupted when we scored,” senior forward Troy Williams said of the deep 2023 playoff run. “Selling out for playoff games was amazing.”

Frosty Mug with critical points

While Guelph’s opponents have rotated since the inaugural Frosty Mug in 2010, the 2024 matchup with Lakehead, as part of a two-game weekend set, could not be more critical.

The Gryphons, under rookie head coach Josh Dixon, sit in the sixth and final OUA West Division playoff spot, while the Thunderwolves sit seventh, just one point behind with three weeks left in the season. ?MHKY HIGHLIGHT: Another great pass from Jacob Winterton as he finds Luke Bignell who buries 6th goal of the season to give @gryphonsmhky the lead at #FrostyMug23! #GryphonPride pic.twitter.com/euYkd1Ok2z


Guelph is 2-1-2 in their last five games, while Lakehead has lost four of their last five. However, the Gryphons, who have lost a combined 58 games to significant player injuries this season, are 8-0-3 when at home.

For two teams that share eight OUA titles and are no strangers to the University Cup tournament, battling for a playoff spot has been largely unfamiliar throughout their history.

“It’s going to be a very loud, intense atmosphere from everything I’ve been told.

The Frosty Mug is unlike anything else; even guys who’ve been through junior hockey playing in teddy bear toss games, or the NHL rinks in western Canada say that” Dixon said. “Having two important points on the line makes it even more special.”

Lakehead’s inspiring night

While the Thunderwolves enter the Frosty Mug on a three-game skid, they come off a special night, having hosted their first Indigenous game on Saturday in a 3-1 loss to the Wilfrid Laurier University Golden Hawks.

Despite the result, few nights stand out similarly for Williams, who wore his spiritual name, “Wasbishi Gaabo,” meaning white bear, protector of the earth, on the back of the speciality-designed jerseys put together by local Oji-Cree artist Jessica Mamakeesick.

A hockey jersey which has the number 22 and says Troy Williams had the opportunity to wear his spiritual name on the back of the uniquely designed Lakehead Thunderwolves jerseys. (Submitted by Troy Williams)

The game webcast was also done in Oji-Cree; an elder spoke to the crowd ahead of puck drop, and intermissions were extended to showcase the local Indigenous culture.

“It made me happy to hear my own language before a game; it’s something I’ve never heard before,” Williams said.

“Wearing my spiritual name was one of the greatest honours I’ve ever had to do, and when we were talking about the jerseys, it was one of the first things that I really wanted to do.”

Around the U Sports World

  • The TRU Wolfpack men’s volleyball team played their first games on home court after losing their teammate Owyn McInnis to a fatal car crash on Nov.


    They won both emotional outings 3-0 over the MacEwan Griffins.

  • Queen’s Gaels women’s basketball improved to 11-2, and while they sit third in the OUA East Division, Julie Chadwick posted a 43-point, 27-block performance in a 95-53 win over the York Lions.

  • The Concordia Stingers and University of New Brunswick Reds remained the only two teams undefeated in women’s and men’s hockey, respectively, with Concordia at 16-0-0 and UNB at 22-0-0.

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  1. ^ cbcsports.ca (www.cbc.ca)
  2. ^ @lakeheaduhockey (twitter.com)
  3. ^ @guelph_gryphons (twitter.com)