CHARLOTTETOWN, PEI – With more than 3,600 fans packing the rink, there was no doubt it was going to be an emotional night of U SPORTS semifinal hockey.
While the UPEI Panthers came into the game brimming with energy, fresh off a monumental win over the top-seeded Calgary Dinos, the game didn’t start ideally. Within 23 seconds, the Alberta Golden Bears led — and the 16-time U SPORTS champions weren’t looking back.
UPEI responded, racking up shots against Alberta goaltender Ethan Kruger. Yet, it wasn’t enough to deter the Golden Bears, as they vaulted themselves to an eventual 4-1 win with goals from Eric Florchuk, Matt Fonteyene, Nolan Volcan and Tyler Preziuso.
However, a collision between UPEI forward Zac Beauregard and Alberta’s Kruger stole the focus on the night away from the upcoming and tantalizing U CUP final between the UNB Reds and Golden Bears.
Beauregard skated in on a breakaway and violently collided with Kruger, sparking tempers from both teams, including fists thrown and limbs grabbed. Kruger had to leave the game due to injury, while Beauregard was handed a 10-minute game misconduct.
Beauregard appeared to throw a sucker punch into Kruger’s face. Nearly 30 minutes of penalties came out of the incident.
“[Kruger] gets blatantly run, and then well it’s a scrum. He gets sucker-punched,” said Alberta head coach Ian Herbers. “No glove on, everything else hits him blindside of the head. That [kind of] game happened in the ’80s. That shouldn’t be happening in today’s game; it just ruins the game of hockey.”
To say it was an emotional night is an understatement; Alberta and UPEI put their hearts on the line, which may have boiled over at points.
“Zac’s a small guy, and he plays very fast and very hard,” responded UPEI head coach Forbes MacPherson on the situation. “He was making a strong play to the net to try to score a goal at the time. The fact is, Zac, weighs 146 pounds and he’s right-handed. And he hit the goalie with his left hand open-handed. So I mean, you tell me.”
At the end of the night, Alberta refused to shake hands with the Panthers, leaving the ice before the player of the game ceremony, keeping them away from any potential predicaments between the two teams.
Alberta’s experience on the U CUP stage
For Alberta, the game’s end harkened back to experience — a time at this stage when they’d been in a similar situation. In 2019’s U CUP semifinal against the Saskatchewan Huskies, the Golden Bears got tied into emotions and rough play with a minute to go in the game, resulting in three major fighting penalties, two instigator penalties and five game misconducts.
While the game was over, Herbers and the Golden Bears didn’t want to risk putting their team in a complex, potentially dangerous situation with a gold medal game against UNB less than 24 hours away.
Alberta lost to UNB in 2019 — it’s clear that experience came into the frame. Nevertheless, Alberta avoided a potentially harmful situation, keeping their players from any risk that could throw off their approach to Sunday’s final.
UPEI ended the game with 42 penalty minutes — Alberta with eight and an injury to their starting goaltender.
“It didn’t feel safe for the players. I thought something else would happen, then get into a bigger incident and create bigger havoc, and then a big black eye for [U SPORTS],” Herbers said. “I didn’t want that opportunity to happen. So I felt it’s safer for our players and better for the league not to get into a situation like that.”
Regrouping from the emotional final is critical for both teams, particularly the Golden Bears. The UNB Reds are hanging around, no doubt watching closely at what happened between the Bears and Panthers.
There’s experience from both of the final’s coaches, UNB’s Gardiner MacDougall and Alberta’s Herbers, both programs, and to an extent, both rosters. It will undoubtedly be an emotional day for the two teams in one of the most storied rivalries in the U CUP since the turn of the millennium.
While Kruger may not be with the Golden Bears, there’s still a test to be had and both teams will undoubtedly be up for one. As well, there’s a possibility of a Kruger return, with Herbers unable to provide an update on his status.
“They had a lot of energy and excitement after the game,” Herbers said of his group after Saturday night’s win. “Tomorrow is a new day. We’ll regroup here; we’ll get our treatments, we’ll get our rest, we’ll get our nutrition, stretching and everything else that the guys do get refocused.”
It’s the fifth time Alberta and UNB have met in the championship game, with UNB winning once and Alberta three times. Despite the thousands of kilometres separating Clare Drake Arena and the Aitken Centre, there’s a rivalry there.
A year ago, the Golden Bears let the title slip through their grasp in the final minutes against the UQTR Patriotes, and while the team has new faces and a new outlook, there’s still a desire to come away with the program’s 17th U CUP title.
“We’ve had a lot of ups and downs this year where things haven’t gone well for us; it could have been easily where we could have folded in and packed it in but our guys kept battling and keep finding a way,” Herbers said. “It’s a gold medal game; it’s going to be tough.”
Puck drop between the Golden Bears and Reds is set for 7:00 pm Atlantic, with the bronze medal game featuring the Panthers and UQTR Patriotes at 1:00 pm Atlantic.