Steeves, ice Axemen cap successful season with USports bronze medal
By John DeCoste '77
(WOLFVILLE, N.S. ) - For goalie Robert Steeves, the 2016-2017 university hockey season was the most satisfying – not to mention the most successful – of his three years at Acadia, culminating in a national bronze medal.
The Axemen were 2-1 at the USports University Cup in Fredericton, defeating Alberta 4-1, and after a 3-0 semifinal loss to eventual-champion UNB, claiming the bronze medal with a convincing 7-3 victory over St. F.X., a team Acadia had previously beaten just once all season.
"It felt really good, winning the bronze medal," Steeves said in an interview March 30. "We were able to beat X when it counted." He joked, "maybe we were saving ourselves for that game."
Steeves, 24, who is in his third year of a business degree at Acadia, was born and grew up in Moncton, though his parents currently live about an hour north in Bouctouche, N.B.
After one year of Junior A in Dieppe, he played major junior for four seasons in the QMJHL, two with Acadie-Bathurst and two with Gatineau, before being recruited to Acadia in 2014.
"I knew I wanted to come back to the Maritimes for university, and I had talked to a few schools," he says. "I didn't know much about Acadia, but my dad is an Acadia grad. He was a big influence on my decision to come here."
In his first year at Acadia, Steeves got into just four games. He "got off to a rocky start my first game," and was replaced by Brandon Glover who ended up "having a great year that year," helping lead the Axemen to a berth in the University Cup.
"It was a bit of a learning experience for me," Steeves says of his rookie year. "I had been a starter for my last three years in junior," and watching the action from the bench was an adjustment.
In his second year, Steeves "got into a few more games" - seven in all – and finished with a .923 save percentage. "I thought I played pretty well," but more than that, "it gave me the confidence that I could be a starter in this league. It also gave me some momentum going into this season."
This past fall, Steeves found he had to compete with not only Glover, but Devin Williams as well. "It made for some good competition among the three of us, all of whom had started in junior."
The first couple of months "were kind of tough. I ended up not dressing for a lot of games." Then coach Darren Burns gave him a couple of starts. "Once I got my chance, I really ran with it," he says.
Steeves entered a Nov. 12 game in Moncton early in the second period with the Axemen trailing 4-1 and stopped 16 of 17 shots the rest of the way. His teammates, meanwhile, came back from a 5-1 deficit, scoring four times in the third period, then winning the game in overtime.
To Steeves, the real turning point of his season was Nov. 25 against UNB in Wolfville. He turned aside 38 of 39 shots as the Axemen scored a 2-1 win over the USports top-ranked team.
Steeves then "had a great weekend to start the second half," allowing just two goals in 4-1 wins over Saint Mary's and Moncton. "That played a big part in me getting to be the number-one goalie," he says. "I built on the early momentum, and once I was in there, I wasn't going to give it up."
Luckily, coach Burns "is the kind of coach who likes to go with the hot hand in goal. It worked out really well for me." Overall, Steeves played in 16 games, 13 of which were starts. He had a 2.46 goals against average and a .912 save percentage, both third in the AUHC. His 11 wins tied him for second.
Coach Burns, he says, "had faith in all three of us. I was fortunate to get the shot and to stay hot."
Heading into the final regular season game against St. F.X., the Axemen were 0-4 on the season against the X-men. Acadia won that game 8-5 and finished the regular season in second place, but when the Axemen and X-men met in the playoff semifinals, St. F.X. came away with a three-game sweep.
"I don't know what it was with us and X," Steeves says. "They always played us really well. A couple of games were decided by one goal, and one went to overtime. They weren't dominating us, but they kind of had our number."
Asked if he had been a goalie his entire career, Steeves replied, "from very early on. My dad (Regan) was a goalie, too," though he never played university hockey. "I definitely looked up to him growing up. For picking it up late, he was a good goalie. I learned a lot from him." Moreover, his father "coached me until I was in junior. He put a lot of work into making me a better goalie."
By definition, goalies often have a reputation for flakiness. Asked if he shared that inclination, Steeves says, "the guys on our team tell me I'm one of the least weird goalies they've played with." At the same time, "I do have my pre-game superstitions and rituals."
Steeves credited a lot of his, and the team's, success to the Axemen defense. "It's a matter of staying consistent, and giving the guys what they need," but it's also a two-way street. During all three games at the University Cup, "there weren't very many shots I didn't see."
Steeves has great praise for the entire Axemen defensive corps. "They let me see the puck really well, and they're really good at blocking shots. I liked how few chances there were when we played UNB (at nationals). It makes a goalie's job a whole lot easier."
In particular, all-Canadian Geoff Schemitsch "might be the most reliable 'D' I've ever played behind," and Matt Pufahl is "really smart out there." Steeves and Schemitsch were co-winners of the Axemen playoff MVP award,
He also has a lot of respect for Steven Woodworth. "We've known each other a long time," he said of his fellow QMJHL grad. "He's always been a solid guy you can count on."
The Axemen knew all season there would be three AUS teams at nationals. "It was awesome to beat Saint Mary's and qualify (for the University Cup). Even though we were the #8 seed, we were confident against Alberta. They're a great team, and a young team, but we played our game."
He added, "to beat a team as highly touted as Alberta was amazing. They're the UNB of their conference, and their program has so much nationals experience. That win is something we'll all remember for a long time."
There were "a lot of family and friends" and Acadia alumni there for the weekend at nationals. "It was a big goal for us to get to play three times."
The UNB game was 1-0 after two periods, and the V-Reds' final goal was into an empty net. "UNB always seems to bring out the best in us. We seem to raise our play to another level against them."
The bronze medal game "would have been a different game if it hadn't been St. F.X." That game "is the most fun I've had playing hockey for a long time. We really wanted to win that medal."
Steeves says his plan is to graduate after four years, in the spring of 2018. "We have a strong group of guys who all came in together. I'm really looking forward to having one last season together."
He is also looking forward to starting the 2017-2018 season as Acadia's number-one goalie. "I believe I've earned the shot. I know a lot can change, but I'm really looking forward to next year."
As for his future, Steeves is "not sure yet. We'll see how next year goes. It would be neat to play a couple more years somewhere, maybe Europe. I'm also a golfer, so maybe Scotland. I'm told there's a good league over there."
One thing is for sure, he has "no regrets at all" over his decision to attend Acadia. "It's one of the best decisions I've ever made. I've had great teammates, made great friends, and the community support for all the Acadia teams has been wonderful."