Women’s hockey will be facing stiff competition when they host the inaugural Queen’s Invitational tournament this weekend.
The tournament, which starts today, will be played at the Invista Centre and features a four-team round robin — with all teams playing each other once.
Competing alongside the Gaels are the defending national champions, the Montreal Carabins, the CIS bronze medalists St. Francis Xavier X-Women and OUA regular season champ Laurier Golden Hawks.
For head coach Matt Holmberg, getting three powerhouse teams coming to Kingston was important for the Gaels, as a team and also as a selling point for their opponents. Both the X-Women and the Carabins expressed a willingness to attend the tournament. Queen’s recent success and the opportunity to play other top-tier teams convinced them to play, he said.
“When you factor in that we were going to be there, I think that was enough to get those teams to commit to coming,” Holmberg said.
When he contacted Laurier, Holmberg used the allure of other successful programs to get the Golden Hawks interested.
“As soon as I told them that St. FX and Montreal were on board, they quickly agreed,” he said. “Things fell in place pretty easily.”
Several other university teams that Holmberg contacted were interested, but couldn’t attend the tournament due to budget concerns or scheduling conflicts.
Budget constraints are part of the reason the Gaels decided to host the competition, as limited finances means traveling to face high quality competition isn’t something the team can easily do.
Queen’s had been thinking about hosting a tournament for several years before finally doing so this season.
For Holmberg, the tournament offers benefits that aren’t there when playing single games during the pre-season, especially with the addition of a trophy to the mix.
“Once you throw that added element of competition into it, the teams will raise their level of play that much more,” he said.
The tournament comes at an opportune time for Queen’s. The exhibition season offers the chance for returnees to shake off the rust and for new players to learn the Gaels’ style.
This year’s pre-season is especially important, as the team has 11 players making their CIS debuts. Introducing rookies to university hockey is part of the reason Holmberg schedules the opponents he does.
“We try our best to line up exhibition games that are against teams we know will challenge us,” he said. “I want to introduce [new players] to a high calibre of CIS play as soon as possible so there’s no surprises in the regular season.”
Holmberg said he looks for at least five challenging games during the pre-season. To reach that number this year, Queen’s took on Concordia and McGill last weekend, losing both games.
Despite the defeats, Holmberg was impressed with the team’s improvement in the two games, adding that winning in the pre-season isn’t as important.
“Ultimately, the games that matter are the ones that happen in February and March,” he said. “If we’re successful in reaching our potential [then], no one will care what the score was back in September.”
Holmberg wants the Queen’s Invitational tournament to become a recurring event on the Gaels’ schedule, with the potential for other teams to join.
“We hope those teams go back to their respective conferences and when they’re talking to coaches from other teams say ‘that Queen’s tournament was pretty good,’” Holmberg said. “When we try to run it next year, if it’s not the same teams, at least other teams have heard good things about it.”
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