When their skates hit the ice for warmups at the Carr-Harris Cup, former Kingston Frontenacs Ryan Cranford and Matt Hotchkiss thought they were back in the black and gold. Representing the Queen’s Gaels, the former OHLers felt right at home, despite not having the comforts of a home locker room or Fronts fans in the stands.
It was not an Ontario Hockey League game, but memories flooded back for Cranford and Hotchkiss. “It was really weird; we thought we were back playing for the Frontenacs,” Hotchkiss said, reflecting the feelings of many Fronts who go on to play in the RMC-Queen’s rivalry.
The Royal Military College and Queen’s University have battled each other in a contentious rivalry since 1886 when they first played on Kingston’s harbour ice with a square puck carved from a lacrosse ball. These days, they pack the Leon’s Centre and wage a battle for the Carr-Harris Cup, a trophy introduced to the competition in 1986, the rivalry’s 100th anniversary.
Featuring a statue of Lennox Irving, who scored the first goal in the rivalry’s history, the Carr-Harris Cup is awarded to the winner of a select game each year. With a trophy on the line and a familiar rivalry, waves of students in tricolour and red scramble to get a seat at the Leon’s Centre.
“It was probably one of the craziest games that I’ve been a part of,” said Cranford, a former Frontenacs captain. “The fans are always bananas, and it’s an amazing experience as a player to feel that energy,” added Darcy Greenaway, who played three seasons with the Fronts.
It is the fans that make the event as unique as it is. Not only does the student-heavy crowd offer a different ambiance than other events through the players’ young careers, but it pushes a rivalry between two schools that are otherwise friendly with each other.
University hockey in Canada seldom attracts significant crowds. Schools in the Atlantic provinces lead the way in attendance, with the University of New Brunswick averaging over 2,500 fans per game. For Queen’s and RMC, however, the number is often well below that.
With the Carr-Harris Cup, U SPORTS/OUA hockey players get to play in front of a sizeable crowd, making the night all the more significant.
Whenever it is Paladins red and Queen’s tricolour, the game means more than the action on the ice, field or court. “It’s almost like a [American] football experience. It truly is like an NCAA football experience,” said Gaels Head Coach Brett Gibson. “They [RMC] always bring their best for us, and I think it’s the byproduct of seeing each other in the grocery store, in the bars, all-around Kingston.”
As a former U SPORTS player himself, Gibson understands the passion and rivalry found in Canadian university hockey. A former Kingston Voyageur, Gibson played five years with the St. Mary’s Huskies in the Atlantic University Sport conference. Although it was not the Carr-Harris Cup, the battles for Halifax bragging rights are near comparable.
“We played Dalhousie in the championship one year, and it went to overtime. That place was going nuts,” said Gibson, a former Frontenacs assistant coach. “That’s probably the only comparable to the Carr-Harris.”
The games, especially the Carr-Harris Cup, hold meaning aside from the rivalry for former Frontenacs players and coaches. While Fronts alumni clash in several leagues worldwide, the RMC-Queen’s matchup is the only time that alumni battle in their old OHL barn.
Liam Murray, now with RMC, knows the feeling better than anyone. “It was weird. I went through a lot with those guys in junior, so when you play against them, a lot of those guys that I’m still really close with, you just have to shut that off.”
A Frontenac from 2016-2018, Murray has always been the type of player to never give up on anything. A rough and rugged guy, it is always a balancing act for him when facing former teammates. “I like to be annoying, play intense, and I always hit,” he chuckled. “It’s hard to shut the friendship off and get back to the typical no friends on the ice idea.”
When players age out of the Canadian Hockey League, they often have several options in choosing a school before narrowing it down to the program they want to join. For Murray, the Carr-Harris Cup moved the needle on his decision to attend RMC after his time with the Fronts.
“I went to the [Carr-Harris Cup] game the year before I committed. Darcy [Greenway] scored the winning goal, and I had never really seen the arena in that light, the fan perspective before,” Murray said. “It was at that game that I decided ‘I need to play in this. I need to get in on this.”
The age-old rivalry is different for Murray and the Paladins than for many of his fellow Frontenacs alumni who play for Queen’s. While the Gaels are often in the OUA championship conversation, RMC is often battling for a playoff spot.
Heading into the last big game in February 2020, the Paladins were in the midst of a tight-playoff battle with the Nipissing University Lakers, while the Gaels had their sights set on repeating as OUA Queen’s Cup Champions and a potential run at the U CUP.
“It’s the game I hate the most. If we win, it’s expected, and if we lose, it’s on the front page of the paper, so it’s not enjoyable as a coach, but it’s a great environment to be in,” said Gibson. He knows the pressure felt with thousands of fans at the Leon’s Centre helps prepare his team for the road ahead. “It’s at the perfect point in the schedule; it helps us get ready for the playoffs.”
A record 4,121 fans watched the Gaels take down the Paladins 4-2 in 2020 before RMC pushed their way into the Queen’s Cup Playoffs, eventually falling to the Carleton Ravens in the first round. Queen’s were unable to repeat as OUA champions.
The Carr-Harris Cup encapsulates the passion each student-body has for their schools and produces one of the most memorable hockey experiences of players’ careers. “The closest experience is probably when Gabe [Vilardi] scored against North Bay to win the series,” said Cranford, recalling the 2018 OHL Playoffs. Meanwhile, Murray compared the atmosphere to the Tragically Hip game.
While COVID-19 put Canadian university hockey on hiatus in 2020-21, the rivalry is back and better than ever in 2021-22. With a travel-reduced schedule, the Paladins and Gaels clash eight times in the regular season, facing off for the first time on November 3 at the Kingston Memorial Centre.
Playing in front of passionate university students and fans, the annual Carr-Harris Cup is always a date that players, staff and fans alike circle on their calendars. For former Frontenacs, the experience is unique, being able to lace up their skates and play at the Leon’s Centre just as they did in junior.
“When you win, it’s an incredible feeling in front of thousands of your peers/classmates,” said Greenaway. “When you lose, it stings, and the other team has bragging rights for a whole year.”