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Entwining Athletics and Academics: Liam Heelis

The prospect of life beyond hockey was eased when the OHL introduced a financial commitment to the education of all its players. Furthermore, the Petes evolved the identity of its young men from hockey players to student-athletes, when ’64-’67 alumnus Gary Monahan was the first Pete to attend a post-secondary institution – Trent University – while representing the maroon and white.

Since the development of players’ roles in junior hockey, many men have used their resources – whether it be attending lectures or taking advantage of scholarship packages – as the foundation to step into careers beyond the rink. Falling under this umbrella of performing well both on the ice and in the classroom is ’06-’10 Petes graduate Liam Heelis.

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The former forward describes that generation of Petes as possessing strong leadership, with guys that he wanted to learn from. “I enjoyed my three years in Peterborough thoroughly, it was a great developmental time for me as a young athlete and hockey player. Some great friendships, and most importantly I gained another family: Scott and Laurie Phillips and their sons Drew and Brad.”

Gaining billet dad Scott lent Liam an active support when the traditional insecurities of being a young player who is pushing to make the lineup lurked.

“Everyone struggles with new types of adversity you haven’t seen before. You go from being a player who is always called upon in minor to entering a new role and trying to get in the lineup. I was trying to get in the lineup my first and second year. I was really struggling with my confidence. My father and my billet father had recognized this and I was able to just chat with they and they were just so supportive.”

Heelis acknowledged his insecurities and responded to the disappointment of sitting on the bench with 6:00 AM solo ice sessions on Wednesday mornings at the Kinsmen arena, only possible because of Mr. Phillips.

“I think from that I really learned a ton, specifically how to manage my own confidence.”

Atop these lessons assisted by his Petes family, Heelis has fond memories of walking into the dressing room to find water cups under guys’ helmets or taped up visors, the secret Santas and evenings spent in Jamie Doornbosch, Justin Larson and Chad Lowry’s basement, unable to describe the details of these stories without pausing to laugh.

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Since his days at the Memorial Centre, Heelis’ time can be summarized as a transient academic pursuit in search of what makes the perfect coach.

After leaving the Petes, Liam spent his overage season with the Owen Sound Attack, capping his time in junior hockey with a J. Ross Robertson Cup. From here, he embarked on the early stages of becoming a full time student, attending Acadia University in Wolfeville. 

“From junior hockey I learned I excel in smaller communities, people-based environments where you can establish long lasting relationships like I did with my teammates in Peterborough. I went out to Acadia and it was a really small, tight knit community. The athletics department was very cohesive, where athletes weren’t only hanging out with people on their own team, it was really special and it was something I wanted to be a part of.”

The mental and physical effort put in early while with the Petes didn’t go to waste, but rather manifested itself into substantial success for the Axemen. While at Acadia, Liam was voted AUS and CIS All-Canadian, won AUS men’s hockey MVP, and was named CIS men’s hockey player of the year in 2014. In addition to these individual achievements, Liam played a significant role in the red, white and blue’s first AUS championship win since 2006.

Liam’s innate desire to analyze relationships between teammates and coaching staff – a mindset developed in junior hockey – made him a great fit for the Acadian psychology program. He cites head coach and fellow Petes alumnus Mark Reeds as providing him guidance via weekly conversations and sparking his interest in understanding the various coaching styles.

“He really pushed the coaching side out of me and wanting to learn about human interaction and relationships, and how groups function optimally and that sort of breached my initial interest in psychology.”

Four years later, with a psychology degree and AUS championship under his belt, Heelis left the Maritimes and sought out a master’s degree in sport psychology at McGill University. The Georgetown, Ontario native completed his five years of U Sports eligibility in his initial year of grad school.

In Montreal, Liam completed a thesis in sport psychology entitled, “Coach Leadership Experience in the Management of Athletes.” His body of research involved interviewing head coaches with ten years experience from the QJMHL and OHL, and understanding their efforts with challenging athletes. The purpose was to understand how coaches, “similar to Mark” explains Liam, “turn these types of players around and thrust them into the team environment and help change their behaviour.”

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Since completing his second degree, Liam plays for the Fife Flyers in the UK’s Elite Ice Hockey League (EIHL). Before returning to Kirkcaldy for his 2018-19 season, the former Pete is awaiting decisions from UK schools, determining whether he will pursue his PHD while simultaneously playing professional hockey. Although the depth of his schooling and experience as an elite athlete opens up a network of options in the future, Liam refuses to hastily determine what the final destination looks like. Regardless, it appears the ongoing fusion of athletics and academics will forge his next moves.

The OHL is statistically the best league for developing talent at the junior hockey level, and the Petes have distinguished themselves as an organization promoting academic and emotional growth as well, allowing young men like Liam to perform confidently and reach new heights in environments outside the rink.

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