CHARLOTTETOWN, PEI – Cole Mackay doesn’t mind playing back-to-back games on Sunday — his UNB Reds have a chance to win the U SPORTS Men’s Hockey Championship.
A first-year forward, Mackay, like many others, committed to UNB for the academics and the chance to win University Cup titles with a competitive group that demands high standards under head coach Gardiner MacDougall.
“It’s something we hear about from day one, and that’s a big part of why we come to the school to win and be in positions like tomorrow,” Mackay told 49 Sports. “We’re all excited about it. I know even the older guys feel like it is Christmas morning.”
On Saturday, the Reds came out flying, punching their ticket to the U SPORTS Final for the first time since 2019 with a 6-3 victory over the defending champion UQTR Patriotes. While it’s only been one U SPORTS season that UNB missed out on the final, they didn’t want to wait any longer.
The semifinal game couldn’t have started any better for the Reds, who opened the scoring just 16 seconds into the afternoon. After winning the opening draw, the top line worked their way into UQTR’s zone with speed before cycling the puck to a streaking Jason Wilms in the slot, who fired a shot past Alexis Gravel’s pad.
While the Reds got out to a fast start, it wasn’t something they knew would last against a UQTR team that had previously erased 4-0 deficits to win an elimination OUA playoff game against Concordia.
Still, they pressed, adding a second goal through Benjamin Corbeil on a five-on-three powerplay at the end of the first period, going into the break at 2-0. UQTR briefly clawed back in the second period with a Simon LaFrance powerplay goal, but the Reds responded just two minutes later as Mackay potted the 3-1 tally. Emmett Sproule put UNB up 4-1 heading into the third.
“The game was obviously a good start. A script that you’ll take at any time; we got to get a little separation with our second goal,” MacDougall said. “I thought the second period was a separation period for us and extended the lead. The key anytime ever, certainly nationals, is to get the lead and learn how to protect it.”
Throughout the afternoon, UNB continued to be a step quicker than the OUA champion Patriotes, jumping on loose passes and making the most of their opportunities. At the same time, UQTR awaited a lucky bounce that never came.
“They played better than us today,” UQTR’s head coach Marc-Ettiene Hubert said. “At the national with do-or-die games, you have to play your best game each night, and this afternoon, they put out their best game, and we didn’t.”
UNB extended their lead through an Isaac Nurse breakaway as Mackay found his fellow former OHLer on a sprung pass before Nurse froze out Gravel and slotted into the empty net for his first goal since March 5 and fourth since Jan. 1. He later scored a second to seal the 6-3 victory, following UQTR’s late push with goals from Felix LaFrance and Justin Bergeron.
UNB goaltender Samuel Richard made 31 saves in the win, while UQTR’s Alexis Gravel turned away 28 in the defeat.
“It’s good to see. He works hard for everything he gets and is hard to play against,” MacDougall said of Nurse’s afternoon. “He’s a junkyard dog and had a big game for us today.”
Nurse, one of the Reds who experienced the quarter-final loss to TMU last season, will get to take on a national championship final for the first time, as will the youthful group of UNB players. Despite MacDougall’s championships, an inexperienced yet driven group of players is looking to kick off a new winning era of Reds hockey.
“Even the guys who didn’t feel a heartbreak last year they came in, they worked hard,” said veteran defenceman Ross MacDougall. “They worked for us, too. So think it feels great, but we’re definitely not satisfied yet.”
While the Reds have a pair of AUS Championships since the last national title, the current core takes its next step on Sunday night against either the UPEI Panthers or Alberta Golden Bears. Meanwhile, UQTR regroups for the bronze medal game.
“Since Aug. 31, our group has been tremendous,” MacDougall said. “They’ve learned lessons. They bring everything to the rink, they listen, and they perform, and everyone finds a way to do the job.”