By John DeCoste
Head coach Darren Burns admits there were “a lot of unknowns” surrounding the Acadia hockey Axemen heading into this season.
“There were so many new players, and you really don’t know what to expect,” Burns said last week.
Many of the new players have been “pleasant surprises” so far, and have had a major impact on Acadia finishing the first half in third place in the conference with a 9-5-1 record.
“Some of the new guys have played better, and adjusted better to hockey at this level, sooner than we ever thought they would.”
While normally reluctant to single out individuals, Burns made an exception in the case of Alex Beaton, a relatively unheralded freshman who, he said, “is arguably one of the smartest kids I’ve ever coached.”
On a team, which has had its share of surprises so far, Beaton “has blown away anything we ever expected of him.”
He also cited “other unheralded guys” such as Graham Bona, who played both forward and defence before being injured, and Wolfville native K.C. Brown who has made the best of unexpected extra ice time.
All the new players, combined with “all the injuries we’ve gone though, especially to the defense,” could easily have been a recipe for disaster.
Instead, the Axemen, “have played through it well. It’s given more responsibility to the new guys, which they have embraced, and which can only help us in the long run.”
In fact, with the exception of one weekend that featured losses at UNB and UPEI (both of which Acadia later avenged at home as part of a six-game winning streak), “we’ve played well, even in the other games we’ve lost.”
The continued development of players, such as Andrew Clark, Chris Owens and Joe Gaynor, has helped build the team have a strong first part of the season.
“Some of the new guys have played better, and adjusted better to hockey at this level, sooner than we ever thought they would.” - Darren Burns, Acadia men's hockey team head coach
The only real negative was with the Axemen down to four healthy defensemen for a string of games, “some guys have had to play a lot.
“It started to wear them down a bit, and it showed in our last two games,” Burns said, which were losses to St. F.X. and Saint Mary’s.
Owens, who “had a tremendous first half,” tying for the team lead (with Clark) with nine goals each, was also “a perfect example of someone who was a bit worn down” due to all the playing time.
“Some games, we dressed four defensemen on the road and we win the game, which is a testament to how well the rest of the guys have played and come together as a group,” the coach said.
“I believe we can do better, and we can get better. I really like our character and work ethic, and we’ll really need that to compete with the best teams.”
Fortunately, many of the injured players, including Jacob Dietrich and Cullen Morin, will be able to return in January. Bona, who had to play injured against the Huskies, will also use the break to fully heal.
Unfortunately, Ryan Graham, who is experiencing post-concussion symptoms, is likely to miss the remainder of the season. Leo Jenner, who suffered a torn spleen that required surgery, will likely be out two months.
“I don’t like to use injuries as an excuse,” Burns admitted, but in this case, “it is what it is. The guys handled it well and played hard to the end.”
The Axemen are back in action Dec. 30 for an exhibition game against St. Thomas in Wolfville, then host St. F.X. Jan. 2 at 4 p.m. in Berwick in a fundraiser for the Kings Mutual Century Centre.
“We had the ability to finish even a bit higher, but considering everything that’s happened, we’re more than happy with where we are.”