WOMEN IN SPORT: Axewomen hockey’s Jill Burton balances academics, athletics, service and activism

John Decoste jdecoste@kingscountynews.ca
Published on June 18, 2014

 Jill Burton figures she has played hockey for 10 years - on a number of teams in a number of leagues and at a number of levels. When it came time to enter university, playing hockey was a factor, but making sure she got a good education was more important.

When the time came to decide on an education path after her 2012 graduation from West Kings, Burton looked at universities with varsity women’s hockey programs, but changed her mind.

“I decided I didn’t want hockey taking over my academic life,” the Kingston native said.

She chose Acadia. Since the decision, the 20-year-old has embraced all three aspects of life as a student-athlete: academics, athletics and community. Burton just completed her second year of study toward a degree in kinesiology and has played the past two seasons with the Acadia women’s hockey club team.

 “I’ve always loved hockey,” she said, “but I knew that at university, academics had to come first. At Acadia, I’ve been able to do both. I had to make a choice based on my education, and looking back, I’d say I made the right choice.”

You Can Play

Along with hockey, her studies, and volunteer efforts, a highlight of the past year for Burton was helping head up You Can Play at the Wolfville campus.

“It’s a national initiative,” she said, “with the goal of removing homophobia and the LGBT stigma from sport and from society. We want all players to be treated with equity, respect and safety, regardless of their sexual orientation.”

While there are homosexual athletes of all genders, she said “sport today is at a stage where it’s probably easier for women to come out.” However, with male athletes, she said, “it’s often seen as a manhood thing.”

The idea came out of a discussion in sociology of sport class, Burton said. She paired up with a classmate, varsity basketball player Aprille Deus, to work together on bringing You Can Play to Acadia. Athletic director Kevin Dickie and staff were supportive from day one, she added.

Read more about Burton and Deus' project here.

“Homophobia is a great stress on society that we don’t need and can do without,” Burton said. “(We) are continuing to work with Acadia Athletics to improve the sports community and make it more inclusive.”

A quote from Charlene LaBonte, of Canada’s women’s Olympic hockey team -

 “just like everywhere else, our team had gays and straights, just like we had brunettes and blonde” - recently touched Burton. “When I read that, it reminded me of this initiative, which I felt represented our team and family.”

Acadia student-athletes, she said, “are like a big family. If we can remove the (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) stigma from our family, it will be better off. When you get to the place of play, it should be about the sport, and winning the game, rather than sexual orientation.”

Burton and Deus would like to see the You Can Play values become part of Acadia’s athletic curriculum.

“Once we get all the coaches and players on board, it should be able to become a self-driven initiative,” she said. “We’d like to make a difference, and bring about real change.

 “You look at your team as your family, and you always want what’s best for your family,” she added.

Coaching inspiration

Burton played boys’ hockey until the bantam level and then played with the Western Valley Vixens, the East Hants Penguins midget AAA team and the Valley Wild Midget girls.

She said one of her role models growing up was Scott Fraser.

“He never actually coached my team, but he helped out with all the teams,” she said.

“When I was younger, we never had female hockey coaches, but the first time I did, it really made a big impression.”

Among hockey players, she names Hayley Wickenheiser as an inspiration, as well as someone who recently made an impact in the NHL playoffs:  “I’ve always looked up to Martin St. Louis, who overcame a lack of size to really excel as a player,” Burton said. “I was always small, too, especially playing boys’ hockey.”

Other role models include professor Ann Dodge, a former Olympian, Burton said, who she calls “a pioneer for the development of women in coaching.”

Soccer coach Cindy Tye is another.

 “I was so impressed with her (at a leadership camp.) She taught me to be a leader.” Burton said. “When I got to Acadia and saw her picture as a member of the Sports Hall of Fame, I realized that she was so much more than I had realized.

“A lot of the people I had as coaches growing up were character people, that helped me develop as an athlete and as a person,” she added.  “It’s important for people to realize the selflessness of a lot of these coaches, many of whom don’t have (children) on the team.”