Team focusing on return to contention in tough AUS conference
by Corey LeBlanc
After the opportunity to play was put on ice for more than six months, the StFX X-Men hockey team has relished being back at the rink over the past couple weeks.
Although continuing provincial health restrictions have limited what they can do in practice, the White and Blue remain focused on preparing for a return to the upper echelon of the highly-competitive Atlantic University Sport (AUS) conference.
"The energy has been tremendous," veteran head coach Brad Peddle said of his team's intensity since their opening practice, which came on the first day (Sept. 14) of StFX's fall semester.
He adds the on-ice sessions – thus far – have been "intense and competitive."
Noting his student-athletes are "not used to having no hockey for so long," Peddle says they are "having fun" with the return after a lengthy layoff.
"They are back where they are comfortable," he adds.
Fifth-year forward Matt Graham agrees.
"It has been really exciting," the Bedford, Nova Scotia native – who played his first two collegiate seasons in the NCAA – says.
He notes the X-Men are "pretty thankful" to be in the Maritimes, where they have this opportunity "to skate together as a team."
"Right now, the key has been getting everyone back on the ice," Peddle says of the early focus for the program.
The 'everyone' that will be lacing up the blades for the White and Blue this season includes 10 newcomers, an infusion of talent that the X bench boss says has brought a great boost to their early sessions.
"We are gelling really well," Graham notes.
He says the first-year X-Men have helped "push the pace" in practice.
"I think that we are going to be a faster team, one that will be able to play at a really high tempo," Graham adds.
He notes everyone - whether a newcomer or a returnee – came back to campus in "great shape."
With an unprecedented start to this year – when it comes to having to do things differently in preparation for what is now an abbreviated AUS regular season that is tentatively scheduled to start in January – Peddle explains the X-Men program has "changed up some things" in its approach.
"We are usually playing pre-season games by now," he notes in the Sept. 28 phone interview.
Rather than taking the ice five or six days a week, there are now three to four opportunities.
With only 10 players allowed in a group during organized sports – without social distancing measures having to be taken – teams have had to adapt.
Over the first few weeks, Peddle says their program has been placing "extra emphasis" on strength and conditioning, while skill development has been at the forefront during practices.
He describes their three-on-three sessions as "highly competitive."
With an easing of restrictions expected today (Oct. 1), Peddle says the X-Men will start to increase their time on the ice, along with what they will be doing during those practices.
By November, the ramping up will continue, including in areas such as implementing systems and game-planning.
"We believe in [that timeline] and we are preparing for it," Peddle says of the current plan to drop the puck on the conference season in early 2021.
Graham adds "we will be ready to go."
Peddle notes they hope to play a couple pre-season games in late December as part of the tuning-up process.
As for their expectations – when, and if, the AUS regular season gets underway – he says the White and Blue will be focused on "playing to the standard" they have established over the past several years, one that has made them annual contenders not only for an AUS crown, but also a CIS national championship.
"We want to get back to being one of the top programs in Canada," Graham adds.
Peddle calls the X-Men's quick exit from the AUS post-season last March – an opening-round loss – as "disappointing."
"We took a step back," he says.
Peddle notes – in a highly-competitive conference, such as the AUS – that can "happen at any time."
"We expect to be in the mix again," he adds.
Even though there has been extensive roster turnover, Peddle cautions that doesn't mean that they have the mindset "we are young and we will take some lumps."
"It is definitely not a rebuilding year – we expect a lot of ourselves," Graham says adding it is a matter of "reloading and not rebuilding."
The head coach – and his veteran forward – describes the incoming first-year X-Men as "impact players."
"We are going to be built on speed, along with two-way and –of course- team play," Peddle says.
And, as for the returning veteran core, including Graham, he adds the program is "going to rely on them to continue to set the standard," noting their extensive experience in the post-season, including at the year-end CIS tournament.
"We will need them to lead the way," Peddle adds.