[Editor's note: The St. F.X. X-Men, seeded sixth, will face off against the third-seeded Queen's Gael Friday at 10 p.m. ADT]
The St. F.X. X-Men hockey team has climbed high on the playoff mountain in recent seasons, but it hasn’t been able to reach the summit – winning a national championship.
After capturing silver in two of the past three seasons, the Blue and White will focus on taking that final golden step this weekend, when they skate in the U Sports championship tournament in Lethbridge, Alberta.
“The character that we have with this group – the standards that we have set in our program over the past four years – we play for each other and we are a close-knit group,” team captain Mark Tremaine said, when asked about the keys to the X-Men securing a spot, once again, on the national stage.
“Once you get there, you obviously want to get there every single year. We know what it tastes like and we know we wouldn’t want to be done playing hockey in late January, which I think motivates us.
“We needed guys to step up and everybody did that,” the Dartmouth native added.
The X-Men clinched one of two Atlantic University Sport (AUS) berths in nationals with a dramatic five-game victory over the rival Saint Mary’s Huskies. After dropping the first two games, backstopped by sensational goaltending from Chase Marchand, they rattled off three consecutive wins.
That comeback came on the heels of a 2-1 series victory over the Acadia Axemen in the best-of-three quarterfinal.
It has been a campaign marked by perseverance for the X-Men, who finished third in the always tough AUS with a 15-12-3 regular-season, one that included myriad injuries to key players. Late in the year, there was also the news-making brawl with the Acadia Axemen, and its aftermath, which led to several suspensions.
“It is grit, it is character,” Peddle said of how the X-Men made their way to the U Sports tournament for a fifth consecutive season.
“We haven’t, historically, had the most skilled teams here. We have got enough skill on our team, for sure, but we cannot rely on our skill to win – we have to rely on the grit.
“That comes from character and the will to win. What people saw in the playoffs, with this group, is the ‘next man up’ mentality that they have and, despite who was out, other guys stepped up, which is a sign of not only a good team, but also a deep team – a team that is willing to do whatever it takes to win,” Peddle added.
At nationals, the veteran bench boss said the X-Men will have to focus on their strength as “a solid two-way, gritty team that is hard to play against.”
Peddle said they have the necessary ingredients to capture a national title.
“Because we have that resolve and resilience that your need in those short tournaments. It is something that has eluded us. You get so far that you can taste it, and it is painful when you lose it,” he added.
The most recent ‘painful’ experience came one year ago, when the X-Men dropped a 4-2 decision to Alberta in the championship game, after leading 2-0.
Despite that heart-breaking finish, Peddle agreed their experience in recent years will be an asset this weekend.
“I think it is a huge help. We have several guys who have not only been to three and four in a row, but also one – Adam Stevens – who has been to five consecutive national championships, which is incredible,” he said.
Peddle called that type of experience “invaluable.”
“I am sure that the younger guys who haven’t been there yet will certainly lean on those guys for some good advice out there,” he said.
Tremaine, who will be playing in his fourth nationals, is one of those knowledgeable X-Men.
“We have a lot of experience on the big stage and I think we have played four elimination games, so far in the playoffs, and we were not nervous in those, so that will help us – big time – as well,” he noted.
Although they don’t dwell on last season, Peddle pointed out that doesn’t mean it is not a source of motivation.
“I think that is what a lot of our players are talking about – they will be able to share those feelings in the dressing room, how bitter it was on that Sunday, when we lost, and not ever wanting to feel that way again,” he said.
“But, in recognizing that, you must understand this is an eight-team tournament and in one-game, single elimination, anything can happen at any time. You can’t look too far ahead to the gold medal game; you must focus on that first opponent. If you don’t beat that first opponent, you won’t have to worry about playing for a national championship.”
‘Stick to our game plan’
The UNB Reds – a perennial power and multi-time national champion – will also represent the AUS in Lethbridge. They swept the X-Men in the best-of-three conference championship series.
One of the focuses for the X-Men heading into this weekend is getting healthy. Peddle noted, after a couple practices at nationals, they will determine who will be ready to go.
“Despite who is in or who is out, it won’t affect how we have to play. We have to continue what has brought success for this team throughout the playoffs and not change our game, depending on who we are playing. We are most successful when we stick to our game plan,” he said.
“Every time that we do that things seem to go well for us.”
The X-Men’s seeding for the tournament and first round opponent had not been announced by press time.