Same strong results, different challenges for Martlets, Redmen
By Jim Hynes
Last spring, McGill came up one Redmen win short of being able to lay claim to the unofficial title of “Canada’s hockey school.” But with the defending national champion Martlets still ranked No.1 in the country, and the national finalist Redmen once again rated second among the men, the University might get another shot at a national title sweep soon.
Not that you need to sweep the championships to prove Canadian college hockey supremacy. After McGill’s 1-2 punch, only two other schools in the country feature a men’s and women’s team in the Canadian Intercollegiate Sports (CIS) Top 10 – the University of Moncton (women No. 5, men No.6) and Alberta (No. 9 and No. 5).
Going into the holiday break, just beyond the season’s halfway mark, not much has changed for McGill’s two hockey teams this season – not in terms of on-ice results anyway. The Martlets sit atop the Réseau du sport étudiant du Québec (RSEQ) conference with a 10-1 record, while the two-time defending Ontario University Athletics champ Redmen lead their conference with a 13-1-2 mark, a point better than second-place UQTR over whom they hold three games in hand.
Not that this season is a continuation of the last one for either McGill team.
Young Martlets starting to gel
“Last year’s group was such a great, mature team,” said Martlets head coach Peter Smith. “There were very few blips, in practice in particular. This year’s team has taken a little bit longer to get to that stage, but I really like what I see. There has been a lot of improvement from the beginning of September to the beginning of December, an improvement in terms of consistent performance in practice and consistency in games.”
Much of that improvement, Smith said, comes from the development of the team’s 13 first- and second-year players.
“We knew that there would be some ups and downs as we went along and I think that there have been. But what I like about this team, and most of the teams we’ve had here, is that they work hard. They work hard in the classroom and on the ice and they’re a real pleasure to coach.”
Among the team’s sophomores, Smith is particularly pleased at the contributions of forward Leslie Oles. The Physical and Health Education major and Beaconsfield native’s 11 goals leads the team, and her total of 17 points is second only to veteran Ann-Sophie Bettez’s 18.
“She was a good player last year too, and she worked really hard in the summer to improve her fitness in particular,” Smith said. “She’s a great example of someone who put in hard work and got good results. She’s a much more dynamic player this year than she was last year. All the second-year players, and Leslie is just one example, figure it out. They make themselves better and make the team better.”
Another difference between this year’s Martlets and the 2010-11 edition of the team is that the current squad actually lost a game. A 3-2 loss to the visiting Université de Montreal Carabins in the fourth game of the season on Oct. 29 put an end to the Martlets’ 107-game win streak over RSEQ opponents.
“They were very disappointed with the way that they had played,” Smith said of the team’s reaction to finally losing a league game. “And I don’t think it was a complete surprise because we went through a stretch where we were not playing great and we were still winning. So to not play well and to lose was probably a good thing. I had their attention after that. And I think we closed out the first part of the year with some pretty solid performances.”
Redmen persevere despite injury bug.
Redmen hockey coach Kelly Nobes, meanwhile, wouldn’t have minded if this year’s team resembled the 2010-11 squad a little more.
“We had a really interesting first half because of the number of injuries that we had, and it really challenged our team and forced us to play with different line combinations and different defence pairings,” Nobes said. “It forced us to juggle things around, but it also allowed some of the younger players, the first- and second-year guys, to get more of an opportunity than they might normally have had. And for the long-term that’s great for the program.”
While the team’s typical stellar defensive play has been as good as ever this year (37 goals-against in 16 games), the injuries are being felt most in the scoring department thanks to the early season loss of some key veteran forwards. First-line centre Alexandre Picard-Hooper, the CIS player of the year last season, went down with an upper body injury after only eight games, while his fellow senior, winger Marc-Andre Daneau, felled by a preseason knee injury, has yet to play this year. Nobes hopes to have both back in the lineup sometime in the second half. Also missing time this year have been senior scoring star Francis Verreault-Paul (4 games) and defencemen Hubert Genest and Ryan McKiernan, each of whom have missed 10 games.
“We obviously have the depth to keep winning, because we did,” Nobes said. “We found ways to stay at the top of the league and won our games in a lot of different ways.”
Picking up the slack for the fallen D-men have been freshmen Nicholas Therrien, a solid two-way defender who was at the St. Louis Blues training camp in September, and Hugo Laporte an offensive-minded blueliner and a veteran of five QMJHL seasons with Gatineau and Baie-Comeau. Freshman centre Marc-Olivier Vachon, who captained the Voltigeurs de Drummondville for three of his five seasons in the “Q,” has done an admirable job of filling in for Picard-Hooper, Nobes said.
“He’s a great two-way forward who’s done time on the power play, kills penalties and is a good faceoff man too.”
The Redmen have also seen a bit of a change between the pipes, where freshman Mark Segal has emerged to split the duties with veteran Hubert Morin. Segal, who toiled for the Vancouver Giants of the WHL the past two seasons, has a goals-against-average of 2.53 in seven games played.
“It’s a bit of a balancing act,” Nobes said. “The rookie has to play to get better but the 4th-year man does too to stay sharp. But we’re comfortable with either guy in the net at this point.”
Off since their 3-2 defeat of RMC in the Dec. 2 Score with School promotion game, the Redmen will host Waterloo in a pair of exhibition games at McConnell Arena Dec. 29-30 before resuming their regular season schedule at home Jan. 6-7 when they play Ottawa and Ryerson respectively.
The Martlets will get a chance to test themselves against some of the best women’s teams in the country when they host Laurier (No 2.), St. FX (No.4) and Manitoba in the Martlet Holiday Invitational Tournament Dec. 28-30. Then they’ll head to Yale on Jan. 7 for a quick exhibition matchup before resuming regular season play against Concordia on Jan. 13 at the Ed Meagher Arena.