Although uncertainty with season remains, preparations underway for defense of AUS crown
by Corey LeBlanc
Defense of their Atlantic University Sport (AUS) hockey championship may begin later than expected, if at all, but the StFX X-Women will be ready.
"We are looking forward to the challenge," White and Blue head coach Ben Berthiaume says.
By this time, the 2020 conference coach of the year notes, his team would have played at least two pre-season games, with another couple others on the horizon.
But, because of the continuing provincial restrictions aimed at dealing with the ongoing Covid-19 global pandemic, the X-Women are only practicing – and that's also with limitations.
"It is certainly a little different, but we are getting on the ice," Berthiaume says.
"The players are enjoying being back together and working out as a team."
An abbreviated conference regular season for women's hockey is tentatively scheduled to begin in early 2021.
"We have been changing up what we are doing," Berthiaume says.
Noting they have been having one fewer practice per week, he adds those have been focused on skill development, which has been necessitated by the current provincial health rule that only 10 participants can participate in organized sports without maintaining social distancing.
"We are usually getting systems geared up," he notes of the usual schedule – at this time of year – for the program.
To illustrate the effect that this number restriction has created, Berthiaume says he and his coaching staff could not be on the ice during recent tryout sessions because it would have broken that rule.
"We had to have our captains lead the practices," he notes.
Despite the adjustments they are dealing with, Berthiaume says the coaches and X-Women student-athletes are "excited to be back on campus."
Third-year defender Josie Chisholm agrees. "Morale is high," the Antigonish native says.
While being "respectful" of health measures in effect, Chisholm notes "we have been doing things to the best of our abilities."
Considering she and many of her teammates had not been skating for more than six months, she says they are "really happy" to be back on the ice as much as possible.
With that in mind, Chisholm notes, the players have been a "little bit rusty" during their first few on-ice sessions.
Along with ramping up their game in recent weeks, some X-Women players – including Chisholm and Patti-Anne Tracey, another Antigonish product – have been busy providing support to their teammates that have been arriving from outside the Atlantic bubble.
"We have been doing what we can to help them through," Chisholm says, noting the mental challenge faced by players who were required to spend 14 days in self-isolation.
Their team-building gestures have included grocery pick-ups.
Chisholm explains she and other veteran players have been "role modelling," making sure they are adhering to the health guidelines.
"We want to set an example for our freshmen," she says.
When it comes to preparing for the season, which has progressed "a little bit slower than usual" because of the limitations, Chisholm offers there may be a silver lining, of sorts, for incoming first-year players. She suggests they are receiving an extended opportunity "to get comfortable" – both athletically and academically.
Although practices have been limited, Chisholm says that doesn't mean there haven't been signs that players are "willing and ready to compete."
"You can see that everyone is working hard, and buying in," she adds, noting the level of intensity shown during their three-on-three drills.
If the season unfolds as planned, Chisholm says they are going to ice a "strong and competitive" team.
"They are excited to play, whenever that might be," Berthiaume says.
He notes they hope to start playing exhibition games in November, "if not sooner."
"They are excited to play, whenever that might be," he adds.
Although there will "always be some uncertainty," when it comes to whether or not there will be a conference regular season – considering the potential changes with the global pandemic, Berthiaume notes their focus will not be affected as they prepare to defend their AUS title.
"Our expectations are really high," Berthiaume says.
He adds the White and Blue program is pleased with the depth of their roster.
"They have been doing very well. We think they will be ready to step in – right away – and play a significant role, which is not always a case," Berthiaume notes of his newcomers.
He says X-Women's prospects are high, not only this season, but also for the next couple.
For now, Berthiaume says the coaches and players will concentrate on skill development as a key to remaining focused on "getting better as group," something that will continue – even when they are able to participate in full practices with the expected increase in the provincial limit (to 50) on participants in organized sports without social distancing.
"I think we will be able to do something special," Chisholm adds.