More than 100 of the top female athletes from across the Maritimes will invade Sackville in just two weeks time seeking to mine some gold during a four-day display of prowess.
The occasion, of course, will be the annual Atlantic University Women's Hockey Conference playoffs with the Mount Allison Mounties serving as hosts over the four-day period, Thursday to Sunday, February 21-24. This will mark the final occasion such a format will be held. Officials have dictated that future playoffs will be held in a best two-of-three playoffs, with the top six teams being involved.
Women's hockey, at the university level, has come light miles over the past 10 years and continues to grow and improve. The majority of performers are graduates of prep schools or AAA midget leagues and arrive with well-honed skills and a strong knowledge of the game. Outstanding goaltending is a feature of most teams, which permits the coaches time to concentrate on the little things that create a winning tradition, especially execution.
This year's playoffs will feature the number-three-ranked team in all of Canada, The St. FX X-Women, which has lost just once in 21 attempts. The team, each year, is the top-rated squad in the AUS and shows the results of extensive recruiting and solid coaching. This year the Saint Mary's Huskies have taken over the runner-up spot from University of Moncton and boast a 13-7-1 record as this is being penned.
While the Mounties have struggled most of this season, the team appears to be coming together in spite of being riddled with the flu bug in recent weeks. At one point, seven players were confined to their rooms, while even coach Zack Ball has been barely able to function, relying on his assistants in many instances.
With what appears to be an anemic record of five wins, 11 losses and four overtime defeats, the Mounties have lost nine games by a single goal, an indication of how close the teams find themselves. Ball is fairly optimistic, believing that any team can beat any other on a given night with the breaks usually being the difference.
The Mounties have become notoriously known as late starters – last year it took a run of seven consecutive victories to propel them into the playoffs. They advanced to the finals, where they fell to UPEI after the players had only 12 hours of rest and "ran out of legs."
One of the reasons for the slow starts is the fact they are not asked to return early while ice at the Tantramar Veterans Memorial Civic Centre is much later being installed than in the other university rinks. Actually, after going five games without a win the Mounties took five of a possible six points during one busy weekend prior to Christmas. Then, with some other league teams playing in tournaments over Christmas or returning early' the local team did not get back on the ice until Jan. 6, again finding themselves behind the others in terms of conditioning and execution.
However, a recent 4-0 victory over Moncton did much to inject some new enthusiasm. Then, over the past weekend they went with several players left behind due to illness and dropped a hard fought 2-1 decision to St. Mary's and fell 5-2 to the nationally ranked X-Women.
"Neither Moncton nor us have a poor team," says Ball. "As a matter of fact this team is the strongest one we have had during my eight years here, four as head coach. Some 'healthy scratches' would have been standouts just four or five years ago, that is how much we have advanced."
So, how much will playing in their own barn will be of an advantage? Ball says only in that the players will feel comfortable in their own dressing room and, hopefully, will have the support of a strong contingent of fans. But he notes the tournament is being held during the Spring break from classes and many students will be out of town.
In an effort to attract young fans to the tournament there will be no charge for those in high school or younger, while adults will be charged $15 for the four days of competition with daily passes being available for $5. Games will be played at 3 and 6 each day with the opening one pitting the X-Women against the Mounties on Thursday followed by St. Mary’s and Moncton at 6.
With 10 first-year players in the lineup it has taken time to bond but captain Lauren Oickle has been an inspiration. Missing several games with a shoulder injury, she has returned to lead the team, hitting the scoresheet consistently over the past three outings.
The King sisters – Chelsie and Kelsie – bring a lot of skill to the table and form a potent trio with Megan Entwhistle, while Marissa Simard of Moncton and Randy Sullivan have also shown well in their first year. The goaltending has been better than adequate, with veteran Megan Carly-Byrne and Janelle Hulan carrying the load.
Until recently, a lack of scoring punch has been the major factor – the team has been outscored 52-31 over 20 games – but the coach feels the corner has been turned.
So, it will be on the line here in Sackville soon – fans will have an opportunity to witness some of the finest women's hockey being played in Canada in our very own rink. This is not an occasion that occurs every day so we expect the true hockey fans will be out in force to see some great games and to root on their home town players.