By: Monty Mosher
It's not surprising Holden Cook ended up with the St. Francis Xavier X-Men. He fits the program to a tee.
Cook was a decent scorer during his OHL career with the Owen Sound Attack, scoring a career-best 28 goals in 2013-14.
The skilled forward was good enough to earn a look with the Los Angeles Kings.
But the Whitby, Ont., native was mainly a shut-down forward in his OHL days, quietly matching up against the blue-chip forward prospects who skated against him.
University hockey has allowed the 23-year-old Cook, a business student, to flourish and grow in confidence. He had 12 goals and 15 assists in each of his first two seasons in Antigonish and has six goals and 17 assists through 18 games this year.
With two straight conference titles, the X-Men might be expected to be in the spotlight, even in the crosshairs of every opponent. But that's not the reality of AUS hockey. Teams are only as good as their last shift.
Cook doesn't really care that the X-Men get attention. They'd rather earn respect.
"We're not flashy," Cook said this week as AUS hockey came out of holiday hibernation. "UNB is a much more skilled team than we are and Acadia is probably the same way, but we're pretty deep and our guys seem to get the job done."
Head coach Brad Peddle said Cook is part of a group that understands the way the X-Men have to play to be successful.
"They take pride in being a good two-way team that competes hard," said Peddle, who had Cook on his roster last month when a team of U Sports all-stars swept a two-game series against the Canadian national junior team prospects.
"Everything with the group revolves around a team-first identity where contributions are needed by all -- from how we score to how we defend right through our lineup."
Cook has fit in nicely since he arrived in Nova Scotia.
"Holden is a player who has consistently gotten better each year and has become a very good AUS player," said Peddle. "He is a good two-way forward, that has a high skill level, and with more opportunity he has really developed his offensive game since junior hockey. He fits our style of play very well."
Grit prevailed a year ago when the X-Men rallied from a mediocre regular season to win seven straight playoff games for the conference banner. They had to rally from two goals down in Antigonish to beat UNB 5-4 for a two-game sweep in the final.
But, a year after playing in the University Cup final against UNB in Halifax, the X-Men couldn't sustain the momentum at the nationals. They defeated McGill 4-1 in the quarter-finals before losing 8-0 to Saskatchewan in the semifinals. Acadia beat them 7-3 for bronze.
There are painful lessons from those experiences. Cook said one of them is to maintain the energy and drive through the nationals after the grind of the AUS playoffs.
Cook said there is no reason to think the X-Men can't be around for another March run.
"We're a confident group and we believe in each other. But every team in this league is confident and they all have the same aspirations. Everyone has to be that way if you want to do well."
For the second straight year, Cook had a chance to represent U Sports against Canada's top juniors.
It was surprising to some, but not Cook, that the U Sports players prevailed. He said they were more of a team this year than a loose collection of all-stars.
"It was a different experience this time," he said. "The whole set-up this year was a lot more professional. The coaches took on the idea that we really wanted to win and prove what U Sports has to offer. I just think that was such a big difference from last year."
The holiday break is a tough thing to negotiate for any program.
The X-Men are 15-1-2, a point behind UNB. They won their last seven in a row before the break.
But hockey, in particular, forces full attention once the season resumes. The playoffs are only five weeks away.
He said there is no concern with the X-Men being ready to play when their regular season starts anew. St. F.X. visits UPEI on Friday night.
"Guys take care of themselves maybe at a different standard because we have really high expectations for ourselves," Cook said. "We've got a veteran group. I think everybody knows what we expect. Hopefully, it will transfer into a good run again this year."
It's tough at the top, as usual, in AUS men's hockey. While the X-Men have back-to-back conference championships, the Varsity Reds have won consecutive national championships. Saint Mary's and Acadia also had strong first semesters.
The X-Men have but one national title when Danny Flynn coached St. F.X. to the top in 2004.
This year's nationals are back in Fredericton, where the Varsity Reds pose a huge obstacle.
"They've earned their respect because they've been good year in and year out," Cook said of UNB. "And they are back-to-back national champions, so credit to them.
"I think we have to show better at nationals if we want that same thing they've got."