WOLFVILLE, NS - The Acadia Axemen hockey team celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Axemen Hockey Celebrity Dinner June 13 with four guests that epitomized the evening’s theme of “Celebrating Canada’s Game.”
The guests included Jill Saulnier and Blayre Turnbull of the Team Canada women’s hockey team that competed in the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics; gold medalist Drake Batherson, who competed at the 2018 World Junior Hockey Championships; and former hockey Axeman Paul McFarland, whose coaching career has rose from head coach of the Kingston Frontenacs of the OHL to assistant coach with the NHL’s Florida Panthers and head coach of the Under 18 Men’s Team Canada.
The annual event has raised over half a million dollars over the last 20 years and included a reception and silent auction as well as a Q&A session with each celebrity guest.
“There are 56 members in U SPORTS and 35 in men’s hockey. We are one of two of the smallest places that compete in university sports,” said executive director of athletics and community events Kevin Dickie.
“We have a minor hockey association named after us and we are one of the top five or six programs in the country perennially. Don’t take it for granted. I catch myself sometimes and must do the same thing. You can debate whether major junior hockey or university hockey is better than the other. All I can tell you is, in a small community to have a product like this, that we can hang our hat on, it’s the envy of the country. It can not happen without the people in this room.”
The first guest to be a part of the question and answer period was Halifax’s Saulnier. She debuted with the Canada women's national ice hockey team at the 2014 Four Nations Cup. To date, her medal record includes a gold medal at the World U-18 Championship in 2010 and silver medals at the 2015 and 2016 World Championships, silver at the 2017 Nations Cup and a silver medal at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
Not selected to the 2017 World Championship team, Saulnier enjoyed the experience of a lifetime with the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Team Canada.
“I was embarrassed. I saw it as a failure and a roadblock in my journey to my dream. I made the national program when I was sixteen and continued to make it at seventeen and eighteen. I kept making it year after year as I got older and things were looking pretty good for 2018 Olympics,” noted Saulnier.
“It was a huge blow to my system and confidence and something I took really hard at first. I was actually going to step away from the game. Things took a turn for the better, I got myself into the gym. I really wanted to prove to the people who left me off that roster that they were wrong. It was my dream and two months later I was named to the (Olympic) team.”
Turnbull, from Stellarton, pointed out that her road to the Olympics had its up and downs and wasn’t much smoother than Saulnier’s.
“After Grade 12, I tried out for the U18 National team and, unlike Jill, I didn’t make the team. After that, I felt my chances of playing in the Olympic team was over. Like Jill said, I am very lucky to have a family that fully supports my dream including the entire province and my hometown in Nova Scotia who supported me so strongly over the last few years. I always knew that my dream was within reach, whether I made the U18 team or not,” pointed out Turnbull.
“After being left out of the National program for a few years, I earned an invite back to try out for the National Development team around my third season at Wisconsin. I received an invite back to the senior team. In my fourth year at Wisconsin, I got to play on the senior team with Jill and play in the Four Nations Cup, where we won a gold medal.”
From captain to coach
McFarland, who captained the Axemen for three seasons, graduated from Acadia in 2010 and has quickly risen in the ranks of coaching hockey in Canada.
Three seasons as head coach of the Kingston Frontenacs (2014-17) of the Ontario Hockey League, McFarland earned a 111-71-22 record. In all three seasons as head coach of Kingston, McFarland's club advanced to the postseason, reaching the second round twice.
He was named as an assistant coach with the Florida Panthers in June of 2017 and has remained with the Panthers for the last two seasons. In 2017 McFarland was also named as head coach of Canada’s National Men’s Summer Under-18 Team.
When asked about what pointed him in the direction of a career in coaching, he noted that the local community in the Annapolis Valley was a big part of his decision to become a coach. As a graduate of Acadia’s School of Business, McFarland began a career in accountancy after his 2010 graduation, but he quickly changed his career path to coaching.
“What really struck me about Acadia was the ability to be involved in the community. Where that started was at the Acadia Hockey Schools. We’d come here three weeks before school started and we’d spend hours upon hours working with the Acadia Minor Hockey and I think that’s why someone like Drake does as well as he has,” he said.
“That was my first introduction to coaching and my passion for teaching and helping players develop and people develop. Being involved in the Acadia community, the hockey schools and teaching as a volunteer pointed me in the direction as something I want to do for a living.”
Following dad’s footsteps
The son of former hockey Axeman Norm Batherson, Drake Batherson was a key player in Team Canada’s World Junior gold medal wins this past season, scoring seven goals in seven games of the Championship tournament.
Batherson, who grew up in Antigonish and Port Williams, noted the importance of his formative years in the Valley. The desire to play hockey began in Germany while his dad played professional European hockey, Batherson’s later years before playing major junior hockey was centred in the Valley.
“When I first stepped into the local Major Bantam league, it was only in its second year and an up and coming league. It was very exciting, as a young player, to step into that high-quality paced hockey at a young age. It was really beneficial and I got to play with my buddies for four to five years,” said Batherson when asked about his time in the Annapolis Valley.
“From Peewee to Junior, I was always the littlest guy on the team. I had to find ways to be successful being the smaller guy on the ice. When I grew, I had to become for feisty and play with an edge.”
Whether it was watching the midget Wildcats practising as a bantam player or watching the NHL with his dad, Batherson attributes his success so far from watching the game.