By John DeCoste
So far, at least, the university student-athlete experience has been everything hockey Axeman Liam Heelis could have hoped for.
“It’s been exceptional,” Georgetown, ON native said. “Everything I hoped it would be and more.”
Heelis, a key member of the hockey Axemen, enjoyed a successful sophomore season in 2012-2013, but his university experience has been a lot more than hockey.
“The hockey program, coach Burns, my teammates, the athletic department and athletic director Kevin Dickie – they’ve all been excellent and have made the adjustment (to life as a student-athlete) a lot easier for me,” he said.
Heelis played four years of Major Junior hockey, three with Peterborough and one with Owen Sound, before entering Acadia.
Moving to university hockey from Major Junior was “a huge jump, and a very big change in a lot of ways” – there are fewer games in the university hockey schedule, but there are also classes and maintaining grades added to the mix, plus the community involvement Acadia expects from its student-athletes.
“It wasn’t easy to start with, but it’s become more of a routine,” he says. “It’s taken some time management and organization, but luckily, those were things I felt I was pretty good at already.”
Heelis says that before his Major Junior career ended, he had decided attending university was the right option and the right path for him.
“I envisioned a smaller-based school that had a strong community involvement. When I came here for my recruiting trip, I realized Acadia was everything I wanted.”
In fact, the Wolfville school – and the local community – has become even more comfortable to him over time.
“The people are really friendly and supportive, and the community support for the hockey program is fantastic.”
Academically, the smaller classroom sizes and the approachability of the teachers have been helpful. Most professors and staff are more than willing to give student-athletes the benefit of the doubt, he said, providing they keep up their end of the academic bargain.
Given that community involvement was a big part of what Heelis was looking for in a university, it’s no surprise that he has been active in the community. He has been involved with the Axemen summer hockey camps, helps out with the Hannah Miller Memorial minor hockey tournament, has volunteered with Hearts on Ice and is part of the WITS anti-bullying initiative in Valley schools.
He has especially enjoyed the latter project.
“It’s been great working with the RCMP. All the athletes who are involved have a great relationship with them,” he said.
Heelis is studying toward a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology, and has enjoyed the academics, even though “it keeps me busy. Between hockey and school, it takes pretty much all my time.”
Asked his plans after graduation, he says, “I’d like to continue chasing my hockey dream,” but he is also drawn to “coaching or managing, maybe a junior team.”
He is also leaning toward studying toward a Masters degree, either in psychology or education – both of which are offered at Acadia. This, he says, would mean he would likely end up spending all five years of his CIS eligibility with the Axemen.
Heelis’s engaging personality, which was on display at events like Hearts on Ice - where he played with the kids, pulling them around on frozen turkeys as part of a turkey pull at the fundraiser - and his on-ice play have combined to make him a fan favourite among the Axemen in just his second season.
“I never expected I’d be a fan favourite,” he said. “It’s one of the perks, I guess. Certainly, as student-athletes, we appreciate all the community does for us, and take whatever opportunity we can go give something back.”
More than anything, Heelis has enjoyed being part of the Axemen the past two seasons.
“We’re a tight-knit group, with a strong bond as a team,” he said.
And with the mix of players returning this fall, Heelis predicts, “the next couple of years here are going to be exciting.”
See a slideshow of shots of Heelis in action this season HERE.