Veteran X-Men eying return to AUS supremacy

Photo credit Mya Slawter
Photo credit Mya Slawter

White and Blue boast deep, talented roster

By Corey LeBlanc

With sweet success becoming the hallmark of the STFX X-Men hockey program, it was unchartered territory for the White and Blue and their supporters last season, when everyone was left with a sour taste in their mouths after being swept in the quarterfinal round of the Atlantic University Sport (AUS) playoffs.

"We haven't forgotten – we are certainly motivated by that early exit," Sean Donovan, X-Men associate head coach, said of his "veteran group."

The White and Blue are focused on bouncing back from the loss to the lower-seeded Acadia Axemen, which came on the heels of a fourth-place finish (16-13-1) in the AUS regular season.

"No one was very happy with how it ended," Donovan added.

He noted that feeling served as motivation for the X-Men.

"Everyone came back in good shape and ready to go," Donovan said.

When asked who will have to lead the way for the experience line-up, one that has added only three newcomers, he offered, "By committee." 

Although the X-Men return "our big names up front," he explained the focus will be on playing a "well-rounded team game," one that will feature a more balanced offensive attack.

Donovan added, "We are not going to rely on one or two players."

Nevertheless, that doesn't mean strong performances aren't expected, once again, from the trio of X-Men that led an offense last season the trailed only the AUS and national champion UNB Reds in goals scored, with 115, and goals per game (3.83).

The reigning AUS most valuable player – Liam Hawel (Arnprior, ON) – led the conference in scoring in 2022-23. The first-team All-Canadian and AUS all-star finished with 39 points, collecting 16 goals and 23 assists. Antigonish's Jacob Hudson (14G, 21A, 35 points) and Matthew Struthers of Milton, Ontario (13G, 22A, 35 points), also an AUS first-team all-star, placed second and third, respectively.  

Donovan expects those scorers to benefit greatly from a more balanced attack – four lines that can threaten offensively - because opponents will not be able to key on them.

When it comes to the blue line, the X-Men have added the high-end trio of Raegan Wiles (Calgary, AB), Charlie Callaghan (Toronto, ON) and Shawn Spearing (Toronto, ON).

"They all bring something different to the table," Donovan said, while noting the size and intelligence shared by the recruits.

He added, "We expect them to make an immediate impact."

They will help solidify a defense corps that returns the Webster brothers – Bailey and Clark – of Charlottetown, along with Brendon Clavelle (Kapuskasing, ON) and Mark Woolley (St. Thomas, ON).

"We have a great mix," Donovan offered of the X-Men on the back end.

When it comes to other first-year X-Men, defenseman Sean Stewart and goaltender Ewan MacDonald add to a growing Antigonish contingent that also includes Hudson, Logan Chisholm, Jacob Stewart and Declan Smith; all graduates of the Antigonish Minor Hockey Association.

Between the pipes, MacDonald will be learning from the returning duo of Joseph Raaymakers (Chatham, ON) and Lucas Pfeil (Owen Sound, ON).   

"They are competing hard; they both want the net," Donovan said of that healthy battle for playing time in the X-Men's crease.

Along with on the bench, there has been change behind it for the White and Blue. Brad Peddle – who remains with the program as general manager – has relinquished his head coaching duties in order to take a scouting position with the NHL's Columbus Blue Jackets. Donovan and another veteran assistant and former STFX player, Dave Stewart, are now associate coaches, while Daniel Nikandrov is in his first season as an X-Men full-time assistant coach.

"Everyone has handled the changes well," Donovan said of the transition.

As for what has to happen for the White and Blue to return to the upper echelon of the conference and compete for an AUS banner, he offered, "We are going to have to play with speed and pace to be successful."

And, Donovan added, "We have to focus on taking care of things defensively."

He noted that the foundation for reaching those goals is to "really compete hard."

"That's something that has to start in practice, and it carries over into the game," Donovan offered.

Heading into another varsity season, he agreed that one constant that the X-Men program can count on is unwavering fan support; whether it is on home ice at the Keating Centre or on the road.

"We are very fortunate," Donovan said, noting the "great alumni" that turns out for games, including – most recently – during the X-Men's pre-season road trip to Montreal.

He added, "Our fans love the team, and we want to do everything that we can to give them a winning and successful one. That is something that we take great pride in."

To accomplish that this season, the White and Blue – once again – will have to compete in "probably the toughest conference in the country," according to Donovan.

"Every game is a tough one – we know we are going to have a battle every night, which means that we are always going to have to be prepared," he said.

The X-Men drop the puck on the 2023-24 AUS regular season with a pair of games this weekend. They will travel to Wolfville on Friday, Oct. 6 to face the Acadia Axemen, and then host the rival Saint Mary's Huskies in their home opener at the Keating Centre on Saturday, Oct. 7.

Game time for both contests is 7 p.m. ADT.

Donovan said, if they stay healthy, the X-Men have the ingredients to vie for conference supremacy.

"We are ready to take on the challenge."