An Antigonish native has started his tenure as head coach of the St. F.X. X-Women hockey team.
Ben Berthiaume took the reins of the program, officially, Aug. 1.
“I am extremely excited to have been given this opportunity. I am really looking forward to it,” he said.
Berthiaume, a St. F.X. Sports Hall of Fame inductee as a defenseman with the 2003-04 national champion X-Men hockey team, will be starting his 13th season with the X-Women.
“Obviously, there is a bit of excitement with a new coach, although I have been there for a long time,” he said.
“But also, and I think Dave [Synishin, former X-Women head coach] would agree, it has been and will continue to be business as usual.”
Noting similarities to Synishin in his approach, Berthiaume said he thinks “the program is going to just continue on.”
“That’s the nice thing about it – it is almost a seamless transition from Dave to me and, I think, the program can continue on, hopefully, as a championship contender,” he added.
Up until now, although the bulk of his time with the X-Women has been as an assistant, Berthiaume has head coaching experience.
In 2014-15, as interim head coach, the Moncton Wildcat and Antigonish Junior Bulldog product earned AUS coach-of-the-year honours for leading the X-Women to a 20-4 regular season record, a conference crown and a fourth-place finish in the national championship tournament.
“I think, when you are in a situation previously, you are able to come into it knowing a bit about it – know the ins and outs of what to expect and what’s going to be required to be successful,” Berthiaume said, when asked about the benefit of that experience a couple years ago.
“I think you know, being in it for so many years, how the program is run. Dave and I are very similar in our thoughts on how a program should be run.
“It is easier coming in, knowing that aspect, and having the background in it to move forward,” he reiterated.
As far as on the ice – systems-wise – Berthiaume said “I don’t know if you will see a whole lot of difference.”
“Our defense is going to be really deep. We will run a lot from the back end – there will be a lot of speed from the back end,” he added, noting the entire X-Women line-up will feature speed.
As for his coaching staff, there will be plenty of familiar faces, including Willie Jo Sofan, his long-time friend and a veteran X-Women assistant.
“Because you have people involved with the program that have been involved for many years – they know what the program is about and they have been a huge benefit in the success of the program,” Berthiaume said of the likes of Sofan, who is entering his ninth season.
“That’s a person I can rely on, who has been there for a long time, so it is so helpful and so important to have those people.”
A trio of former X-Women, including stalwart defender Jenna Downey, will complete the 2017-18 staff.
“She is going to be excellent for us – probably working, mainly, with the ‘D’ and also doing some off-ice stuff,” Berthiaume said of Downey.
Antigonish natives Erin Brophy and Jenna Pitts will also be contributing their knowledge to the program.
“It is important that you have people who, kind of, know where the players are coming from and can see that side of it, as well, which is going to help us immensely,” Berthiaume said.
As for recruiting, he agreed it is a “huge part” of any program.
“Willie Jo has certainly done a tremendous job over the years in that area,” Berthiaume noted.
“I have been involved in the past – maybe not so much in the last few years – and, of course, I will be getting back into it again.”
Berthiaume added “the big thing for us is getting good people in the program.”
“If you have that, the team is able to grow and run off that,” he said.
With bringing in “good people,” the key, Berthiaume noted, there is also the obvious focus on “the roles we are looking to fill.”
“Right now, we are looking for some top-six forwards. We have our ‘D’ solidified for the next couple years, so I think it is important to go in that direction [forwards],” he said.
Speaking of ‘good people,’ Berthiaume agreed Synishin is certainly one of them.
“David has done so much for women’s hockey in this area. He has created a great program,” Berthiaume said, when asked about his friend’s legacy.
He continued by echoing an attitude often reflected by Synishin.
“If you were able to bring good people into the program, and you surround yourself with good people [you will have success],” Berthiaume said.
“If you look at our staff, they are great people, which certainly helps and you bring good people in to play for you, then things fall into place.
“David, over his career as a head coach, has done wonderful things and I have certainly learned a lot and I think we have learned a lot from each other,” he added.
Berthiaume said they have been part of a “great team.”
“It also turned out to be a great friendship that will continue on for years,” he added.
Berthiaume noted he looks forward to continuing to share thoughts about the game with Synishin, who is now head coach with the Antigonish Farmers’ Mutual Junior Bulldogs.
“I assume we will be having conversations all year, back and forth, about different things we see between our different programs, and maybe that we can continue to help each other out,” he said.
When asked about the upcoming season, Berthiaume thinks “we are definitely going to be a contender.”
“I think our ‘D’ is going to be very good,” he said, while noting goaltending will also be strong.
“We lost scoring punch in Kara Power [graduated], but I think we are bringing in some players to help out.”
Reigning conference MVP and national player of the year Sarah Bujold and perennial all-star Daley Oddy will anchor the forward unit.
“I think we are going to be similar to last year – we are going to be quick,” he said.
Noting the parity of the conference, Berthiaume said working hard and preparing are must-haves for any program.
“If you do those things, you will have an opportunity to be successful,” he added.
Berthiaume said everyone with the program is “looking forward to getting in and getting going.”
“Right now, you are almost, kind of, in a little bit of a lull, where you are doing things behind the scenes to get ready,” he added.
“Once we get training camp rolling, I think it is going to be the start of an exciting year.”