Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – Spending two-thirds of the 2018-19 season in the press box gave then-rookie Alexandra Thomson ample time to study the play of fifth-year defenceman Nikki Reimer.
Responsible defensive play, strong skating and an offensive flair – all hallmarks of the former Griffins captain, who was named an Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference first team all-star before graduating from the program last spring.
We can stop short of saying Thomson is a carbon copy, but as a regular in the MacEwan Griffins women's hockey lineup in her second season, the St. Paul, Alta. product brings many of the same attributes.
"If you're picking a D – and it's not just her size – they would be similar," said head coach Lindsay McAlpine. "Nikki, her true core was a defensive defenceman, who, with some confidence, had some offensive upside. We're starting to see that in Alex's game.
"Alex is a naturally-gifted skater, moves really well. As her game evolves, she's starting to get more offensive opportunities as well as creating them. As she moves forward into her third, fourth, fifth year of eligibility, I think you'll see more offence out of her."
Right now, that part of the game hasn't developed for Thomson, who is still searching for her first ACAC goal. But she's shown enough defensively to play important minutes for the Griffins this season.
"I think I've definitely gained more confidence," said Thomson. "Last year I sat out quite a bit. I kind of knew coming into my first year that it was a strong defensive core. I just sat back and watched the older defencemen and took notes from them.
"I really improved my game last year. Then Lindsay was ready to have me in the lineup. I've just been working on things she's given me. I think I've come a long way since I first started with the Griffs."
Thomson leads MacEwan (11-3-0-0) into its first action of the second semester as they host the Red Deer College Queens (9-2-1-0) on Friday (7 p.m., Downtown Community Arena, ACAC TV) and visit them in Red Deer on Saturday (7 p.m., ACAC TV).
Seeing time with veteran defensive partners Kyrelle Skoye and Kennedy Davidson, Thomson has played in all 14 games for the Griffins so far this season. In fact, ever since McAlpine decided to insert her into the lineup in the ACAC Championship final against NAIT last March, she's seized a regular role on the blueline.
"That was a tough decision for us and one that paid off," said McAlpine. "You always look back as a coach and that's one we were happy we made. What Alex gave us was consistency.
"I think any time in a final when your team's emotions run high and things change, I think that's what we were looking for from Alex. That's exactly what she brought and what she continues to bring into this year. Now it's a situation where she's dressed every game this season."
Thomson grew up playing boys hockey in St. Paul, Alta. and encountered an attitude from some that girls weren't supposed to be playing the sport. She proved them wrong.
Taking her game to Bonnyville in peewee to join an all-girls team, her development ascended from there under the tutelage of former St. Thomas Tommies player Dominique Bernier.
"It was completely eye-opening to me," said Thomson. "The atom-aged boys and girls really didn't get along. Going to peewee with girls, I met so many new people. It was really awesome to get out of my comfort zone and gain that confidence from my coaches and teammates and have all of us pushing in the same direction, rather than having some people who believed in you and some saying girls shouldn't play hockey."
Thomson has seen a shift in that old way of thinking, however, and was able to return to her hometown to play on St. Paul's first all-girls midget team.
"I think things are changing a bit," she said. "St. Paul's definitely changing in that respect. They have girls' teams now, which is super nice to see. I wish I could be more a part of that but being here I can only do so much."
In her final year of Midget AAA with the Lloydminster Steelers, Thomson seemed destined to go to MacEwan. Her brother Mitchell went here, and then-teammate Tessa Mitchell had joined the Griffins. She reached out to McAlpine and the rest is history.
"Lots of our recruiting ends up happening with players currently on our team or past players who had a great experience reaching out and making a connection that MacEwan is a good fit," said McAlpine. "This was definitely one of those scenarios. It's worked out great for us."