Hockey X-Women primed for run at AUS banner

Hockey X-Women primed for run at AUS banner

White and Blue welcomes 12 newcomers to varsity roster

By Corey LeBlanc

ANTIGONISH – Although there are a dozen newcomers on the roster, the STFX X-Women expect – once again – to be in the hunt for an Atlantic University Sport (AUS) hockey banner this season.

"We are deeper in every area," X-Women head coach Ben Berthiaume, who won his third AUS coach of the year trophy last season, said of the new look line-up.

Those donning the White and Blue for the first time include nine players starting their university careers, while three boast Division 1 experience in the NCAA.

"We are really excited," he added of the 2023-24 squad.

Along with the level of talent added, Berthiaume stressed the importance the infusion of depth provides to the program. Bitten by the injury bug in last season's playoffs, the X-Women had to finish a hard fought AUS championship series against the UNB Reds with only four healthy defenders.

"We have certainly addressed that [possibility]," he offered of being prepared to deal with the potential of having players out of the line-up.

Considering the influx of new faces, Berthiaume agreed that it will probably take a while to "build team chemistry," while noting that the process is off to a fast start.

"They are really good hockey players," he offered of the recruiting class, noting that will help smooth the transition.

Berthiaume added, "They are not only very capable, but they also play a very smart game."

But, again, there is an "adjustment period" for players in their first university campaign.

As for what his student-athletes – both new and returning – bring to the table, Berthiaume said, "We are going to be a very quick team – one that moves the puck really well."

One of the key areas of focus during training camp and the pre-season has been testing line combinations. That process of creating new-look trios includes finding running mates for Maggy Burbidge (Falmouth, NS) – a first-team AUS all-star and All-Canadian last season – who led the conference in points (47), goals (25) and assists (22); her point total bested everyone in USPORTS by 11.

"We expect Maggy to have another phenomenal season," Berthiaume said, noting the dynamic forward's "rare touch around the net."

And, he added, she continues to bring a second-to-none work ethic to the program – both on and off the ice.

As for who will join her on the X-Women's top line, Berthiaume noted that his coaching staff have already pinpointed some possibilities. Last season, Burbidge skated with program graduates Lea MacLeod and Chloe Vukosa, who finished third and fourth, respectively, in the AUS regular season scoring race.

Along with Burbidge, of course, returning players expected to make an impact up front include homegrown product Landyn Pitts (Antigonish, NS), Ellie Brown (Kemptville, ON), Kamdyn Switzer (Stittsville, ON) and Anna MacCara (Yellowknife, NWT).

"We expect them to step up and help lead the charge," Berthiaume said.

Coupled with newcomers at the same position, he added that the X-Women expect to have scoring punch throughout the line-up.

"We certainly shouldn't have to depend on one line," Berthiaume explained, noting that opponents will not be able to focus solely on shutting down one unit.

Both on defense and at forward, the Antigonish native said, "We have people who can put the puck in the net."

The X-Women did just that last season, leading not only the AUS, but also USPORTS in goals (110), assists (173), goals per game (3.93), shots (1082) and shots per game (38.6). They also topped the conference in power play (26) and short-handed (eight) goals.

Even with the loss of AUS all-stars Lauren Dabrowski (Tiny, ON) – a first-team All-Canadian – and team captain Josie Chisholm, the White and Blue will have experience on the back end, including last season's AUS all-rookie team member Kya Moss (Port Moody, BC), Olivia Sutton (Calgary, AB) and Ella VandeSompel (London, ON).

Between the pipes, STFX must deal with the loss of veteran Jamie Johnson. Amaya Giraudier (Assiniboia, SK) and Maggie Johnston (Summerside, PE) have returned to the X-Women crease for another campaign, while transfer Brooklyn Oakes (Richmond Hill, ON) started her varsity career at the University of Maine.

"That's a hard one," Berthiaume offered, when asked which newcomers he expects to make an impact this season.

While declining to name individual student-athletes, he focused on the talent level of the group; one that includes players with abilities in a variety of areas.

"They are very skilled and fast," Berthiaume said.

He added, of their progress during the early days in White and Blue, "We are pleasantly surprised."

Reiterating that the first-time X-Women bring "a lot of speed," he noted that also applies to the defense corps.

Last season, after finishing second in the AUS with a 20-5-2-1, which earned them a first-round bye in the conference playoffs, the White and Blue skated to a 3-1 victory – in a best-out-of-five semifinal series – over the rival Saint Mary's Huskies.

For the second consecutive season, as mentioned, the X-Women faced off against UNB in the three-game final series. After splitting the first two contests – both one-goal games and road victories – the sides battled into the second OT of the third and deciding game in Fredericton, with the Reds winning 3-2.

"We were right there," Berthiaume said, reiterating the challenge posed by facing the powerful Reds with a dwindling roster.

Even with the AUS final series loss, the X-Women received a berth in the 2023 USPORTS championships. After a razor-thin 3-2 loss to the UBC Thunderbirds in the opening round of the eight-team tournament, the seventh-seeded X-Women rebounded with 7-3 victory over the Nipissing Lakers before bowing out 4-0 to the Toronto Varsity Blues in the consolation final.

"We want to get back there," Berthiaume said of the national championship stage.

Before achieving that goal, the X-Women's steely-eyed focus is on winning the program's first AUS banner since the 2019-2020 campaign; the final conference playoffs before the COVID-19 global pandemic. The Reds have captured back-to-back crowns since the return to full-time action.

Calling it "one big thing," Berthiaume explained the importance of the X-Women being focused on "being better every day." Whether during a practice or a game, he expects the student-athletes to display that team-building approach.

"We are confident in this group's ability to do what it takes to reach our goals this season," he said.

STFX, once again, will drop the puck for home games at the Keating Centre on the Antigonish campus, where fan support – both in the regular season and playoffs – has increased steadily over the years.  

"It is hugely important," Berthiaume offered of the boost the team receives from the partisan crowd, noting that the X-Women – like every STFX varsity team – also receives strong support from alumni and friends while on the road.

Describing how the players "feel it," especially down the home stretch and into the playoffs, he added, "Everyone on our team really appreciates it."

When it comes to the AUS field this season, Berthiaume noted the continuing improvement across the board.

"There is more and more parity; so, you have to be good every night," he said.

If not, Berthiaume added, "You are going to get burned."

The White and Blue will start the regular season on Friday, Oct. 6, when they host the Mount Allison Mounties at the Keating Centre in a 7 p.m. ADT puck drop.