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Sarah Vaillancourt and a trio of her players putting Stanstead College in the national spotlight

The prep school, led by a former Olympian, is home to three promising National U-18 Team members.

Shanna Martin / Eyes on the Prize

Stanstead College has a history of their female students playing hockey dating back to the early 1900s. In the early 2000s, there was a girls’ hockey program, but it was made up of female students who were already at the school that wanted to play rather than a program that recruited players to prepare them to be student athletes.

The high school, founded in 1872, is in the town of Stanstead, Quebec, 45 minutes south of Sherbrooke, and about two hours from Montreal in the province’s Eastern Townships. The town literally sits atop the Canada/USA border, making it attractive to American and Canadian universities alike.

The institution is now known for its hockey programs, and recent alumni include Calgary Flames 2012 first-round pick Mark Jankowski, Les Canadiennes’ Sarah Lefort, and Czech Women’s National Team member Michaela Pejzlova.

The women’s program’s current head coach is former Canadian Olympian Sarah Vaillancourt. When the Sherbrooke-native realized she wanted to play university hockey, she wasn’t able to prepare for her university hockey in Canada, instead going to prep school in the United States.

Now, the option to develop at home exists. The Stanstead program is thriving with top talent. On Canada’s Under-18 team for their recent series against the United States in Lake Placid, Audrey-Anne Veillette, Alexie Guay (who is from nearby Magog), and Rosalie Demers were not only the three Quebec-born players on the roster, they all play — and go to school — at Stanstead College.

Director of hockey operations James Rioux credits Vaillancourt, who was hired as head coach in 2014, for getting the program to the point it is at.

Stanstead has also had players on other national teams, and the trio of Canadians is just the start of the vision that Vaillancourt has begun to implement.

“When I started coaching as a head coach in 2014, that was my goal: take our program and bring it to a whole other level and have players that are completely committed and passionate about the game, and committed to playing at the next level. It doesn't mean they're all going to reach the next level, but we want players that have that sense of commitment to play at the university level, and hopefully some of them will make it to the National Team one day as well.

“It's pretty nice to see that it didn't take that long to have a few players represent our program and our school at the national program.”

The Coach

Vaillancourt doesn’t sugar-coat her expectations to players who come to Stanstead. The two-time (2006 and 2010) Olympic gold medalist was one of the top talents at the top level of the sport. She earned six points in her first game at the senior level with Team Canada. Injuries forced her into retirement in 2013 at the age of 27, before going into coaching.

“I'm not one that just says 'Oh yeah, you have dreams? You can reach your dreams,’” she said. “I am pretty straightforward with them. I've gone down that road and it's not good enough just to be a dreamer. You have to put the work in and you have to go the extra mile.”

USA v Canada Photo by Phillip MacCallum/Getty Images

Her experience as a player also gives her instant credibility from the girls she coaches.

“She really cares about every single one of her players,” said Alexie Guay. “She’s very involved in our hockey and she’ll always be with us in college and the more we play, she’ll still follow us because she really cares.”

“We can ask questions, so she can help us and push us too,” said Rosalie Demers.

“I know that they trust every word that I say even though sometimes I don't tell them what they necessarily want to hear and they don't like it in that moment,” Vaillancourt said. “They know I'm right and they know because I do wear my gear with them on the ice. At least once a week I can show them what it takes to play at the next level and I teach them that on a daily basis.

“And yes, that gives me an advantage and it gives them an advantage. That's why I think more and more players want to come play for us, want to come play for me, because they realize what it takes to play at the next level.

“The ones that are ready to do it, they really commit themselves and do everything that they can to reach that and it doesn't work for everybody. Every year that I've been the head coach we've had players that could return to our team the following year and didn't because they realized that even though when I meet with them, when they come and visit and I ask them ‘how passionate are you about hockey? Do you breathe, eat, and sleep hockey?’ and they all answer ‘yes, yes’ and their parents do too, they don't really realize what it takes and what it is to be an elite hockey player until they come to us.

“And for some of them they realize that halfway through or at the end that ‘hey this is too much for me. It's too demanding. If that's the commitment that it requires to play at the next level ... I just don't have it.’ And that’s OK. It doesn't fit everybody and that's why there are so few Olympians. Or else everybody would become Olympians, right? And that's the mentality that I coach with: that I want to coach players that really want to play at the next level. That's what drives me. That's what motivates me as a coach. I'm not just a regular Bantam AA coach that takes what they have. I want the cream of the crop. That's what I like.

“Coming in they say ‘I want to play college hockey’ and ‘I want to play for the National Team one day.’ They all want to do that but they all don't know what it takes. That's what we do. We open their eyes. 'OK, this is what it takes. Do you still want to do that?’ And for some of them it's ‘yes’ and some of them it's ‘oh my God, no.’

“I'm very glad that these three specific players reached the goal that they had for themselves because they really put in the extra effort and I'm glad that they're being rewarded for it.”

The Players

Audrey-Anne Veillette has always been considered one of the most talented hockey players of her age group.

The Clarkson University commit was named to the Canadian U18 team for the series with the USA for the second straight year. She played in the U18 World Championship last year as well, and was named an alternate captain for this series against the Americans, playing on one of the team’s top lines.

“It’s great to come back and have this experience,” Veillette said. “I’m less nervous, and can share my experience and leadership to the team. [The biggest difference] is the speed of the game. Now I know what it’s like, I’m used to it, so I can play my game.”

“[Being named an alternate is] an honour but it won’t change my game. I’ll keep bringing my best effort and be there for my teammates.”

Veillette scored the lone goal in a 4-1 loss in the first game of the series, finishing a series of passing on the power play.

“At this teenage age sometimes I find that girls need their friend to go work out,” Vaillancourt said about Veillette. “She doesn't need that. She'll find a way to go and work out on her own. She's extremely committed.”

Veillette also was able to play on the penalty kill, and always came back to defend without the puck, often finding herself in the right position.

“She has that awareness of knowing where to be positioned when she doesn't have the puck which is not something that kids that age normally have.”

But Vaillancourt, an offensive star in her own right, has been trying to get Veillette to be a player to take over games offensively.

“Ever since she's been with us she's been working on being more aggressive and wanting to be the one that makes the difference in terms of scoring goals. She has the talent to be able to score goals but sometimes she just doesn't have the mentality that goes with it. She's more like ‘I am going to be the one making a difference in my defensive zone.’ But we want her being an offensive threat as well,” her coach said.

Veillette, a Drummondville native, embodies the type of attitude often seen in women’s hockey where players, even those with top-end talent, tend to not step into the spotlight or want to take charge. Even when describing her goal, she credited her teammates for their passing and said that she was lucky enough to be the one who ended up putting the puck in the net.

“I think sometimes we're more worried about looking selfish rather than being the one being ‘I am going to be the one scoring that goal,’” Vaillancourt said. “It's definitely a trend in female hockey. But we try to change that here and I try to change how the girls think overall. I like players that have a different confidence. Not being cocky but that fine line between cockiness and confidence.

“I try to get that out of them because it's important. And boys have that. It's so innate for them and for girls I find you have to develop that.”

**

Alexie Guay comes from a hockey family.

The 16-year-old has two older sisters who played hockey. One of her brothers, Nicolas, plays in the QMJHL and was invited to the New Jersey Devils’ development camp and another, Patrick, is eligible for the 2018 QMJHL Draft. Her father, Francois, was a star for the Laval Titan in the QMJHL, and played professionally in Europe (including one NHL game) before becoming a player agent.

Shanna Martin / Eyes on the Prize

But it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Alexie may become the best known of all of them.

“She's the one that has that natural, innate will to want to be the one that makes the difference,” said Vaillancourt. “I don't need to go tell her ‘hey you like to think about scoring more goals.’ We've done a lot of work with her because sometimes she wasn't happy with her games and we're like ‘Alexie, you've done everything you needed to do today, you just didn't score. That doesn't necessarily mean you didn't play a good game.’”

Guay, a defender who is committed to Boston College, led all Stanstead players in scoring last year. She had 31 goals and 27 assists in only 44 games. Watching her, you see someone who jumps up in the play often but never at the expense of her defensive responsibilities, something that Vaillancourt said she developed recently.

“Two years ago, she would just carry the puck every single time. I was like ‘OK, no.’ And in the last two years, especially last year, she really learned to be strong defensively and took pride in her D-zone and that makes her such a complete player now.”

**

Rosalie Demers reminds Vaillancourt a lot of herself.

“It was me, Meghan Agosta and Katie Weatherston,” Vaillancourt recalls. “We were the youngest players and [former National Team coach Melody Davidson] used to call us ‘The Waterbugs’ because we were all over [the ice] and always annoying to the other team and would tire out the other lines that we we would play against. And [Demers] kind of reminds me of that too.”

Shanna Martin / Eyes on the Prize

Demers, a Colgate commit, was one of the smallest players on Team Canada and Vaillancourt says in her three years in the program she is the one who has improved the most of the three on the Canadian team.

“She’s one of the smallest players out there but one that's going to be pushing and bodychecking the most out there,” Vaillancourt said. “She goes head-first in the corner and wants the puck and if somebody takes the puck from her she'll do everything to get it back. You know that you'll always get the same effort every day. [...] She’s fearless.”

What’s next?

For Demers and Guay it was their first taste of being with the National Team, and the three players will now go back to Stanstead College with the hopes of putting everything together in their regular season.

They still have the ultimate goal of making it to the Women’s World Under-18 Championship to be held in Dmitrov, Russia in January.

“Myself, Audrey-Anne, and Alexie will bring this experience with us to our club team and help our teammates get better,” Demers said. “When we go back together we can motivate each other.”

“After this, it’s going to be special to wear the same jersey as them again, and hopefully in Russia,” said Guay.