International Intrigue: Owls’ foreign forwards lead them into MASCAC semis

Robert Neuwirth, Daniel Backstrom and FX Girard. (WESTFIELD STATE UNIVERSITY SPORTS)

WESTFIELD – The Westfield State men’s hockey team is heading back the conference semifinals after a successful regular season campaign and a big 3-2 comeback victory over Salem State on Saturday evening. A large part of the Owls’ success this season, and over the past four years, has been its offensive core of Canadian and European seniors that have bolstered the Owl attack.
Senior forwards Francois-Xavier Girard, Daniel Backstrom, and Robert Neuwirth all hail from around the globe, and all three of them found themselves choosing Westfield State as the spot to continue their hockey and educational career.
Girard had the shortest journey of the three, coming to Westfield from St. Lazare, Quebec, Canada.
Before Westfield, Girard played hockey with the St. Laurent Patriotes as a part of the CGEP, a pre-university college setting. After three years there, he came to Westfield to pursue hockey and his passion for exercise science.
“I was attracted to continuing my hockey career and being able to do exercise science while playing at a high level,” said the senior captain.
He certainly has played at a high level during his career, netting 35 goals and 36 assists over his four years with the Owls. He has been a weapon in key situations for Westfield State, scoring 11 power-play goals and six game-winners.
Backstrom, who scored a hat-trick in the MASCAC quarterfinal win on Saturday, comes to Westfield all the way from Helsinki, Finland – the furthest trip of all the Owl hockey players.
He attended prep school in the states and played his junior hockey with the New York Aviators of the North-American 3 Eastern Hockey League (NA3EHL) hockey before coming to Westfield.
“I came to the U.S. so I could get an offer to play college hockey. That’s why I played juniors here…it’s easier to combine sports and education,” Backstrom said.
Backstrom has picked up 73 total points and has been at the center of the Owls’ offensive effort, along with Girard, over the past four years.
The last of the three seniors is Robert Neuwirth, coming to the Owls from Zlin, Czech Republic. Similar to Backstrom, Neuwirth came to the U.S. for preparatory school, playing his junior hockey with the Idaho Jr. Steelheads of the Western States Hockey League (WSHL).
Neuwirth’s biggest hurdle while coming to the United States was learning the English language. He took the “Test of English as a Foreign Language” (TOEFL) exam before entering the halls at Westfield State and was more than successful, but you can still pick up a thick accent when in conversation with the assistant captain.
As with Backstrom, Neuwirth emphasized some of the benefits of playing at an American University setting.
“It’s easier to combine sports and education than in Europe, and as far as schools, Westfield offered us the best option,” said Neuwirth.
The Czechoslovakian has shown excellent poise on the ice this season, potting a season-high 10 goals and 11 assists in the 2019-20 campaign.
Along with their success on the ice, the three seniors have also adapted to the American way of life quite easily.
“It’s a nice change in culture,” said Girard, “going from somewhere where everything is French, and then going to the American lifestyle. Westfield State is really fun; college hockey brings in a lot of different players from around the world and allows you to meet different types of people. It also gives the opportunity to learn a new language.”
“With the transition, I didn’t have a struggle. My English was decent and I felt I adapted well. The professors [at Westfield] helped so much and were helpful with the language barrier,” said Backstrom.
With time winding down at Westfield and the conference playoffs in full swing, Girard noted, “it’s bittersweet, we [have] definitely made a lot of good memories here at Westfield State.”
Girard, Backstrom, Neuwirth, and the rest of the Owls now turn their attention to Plymouth State for tomorrow’s Massachusetts State Collegiate Athletic Conference (MASCAC) semifinal matchup with the Panthers.
The Owls bested Plymouth in the first matchup of the year, 5-2, but then dropped the last two games getting outscored by a combined 15-2 in the two losses. – Courtesy of Nate Barnes w/Lizzie Taylor/Westfield State University Sports

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