CHARLOTTETOWN, PEI – 2023 U SPORTS U CUP MVP, Samuel Richard was just starting his 20-year-old season in QMHJL Rouyn-Noranda when he got a letter.
It was from UNB Reds head coach Gardiner MacDougall. He asked Richard to join his team.
The goaltender was no stranger to recruitment letters from Canadian universities — two strong seasons with the Huskies put him on the map for many programs across the country. But when he got UNB’s, it was a no-brainer.
“It was just, ‘I’m there,’” he said.
Roughly two years later, he was the one leading the program — the one of which he had heard so much about its success before — to the promised land. Richard captured tournament MVP honours at the 2023 U SPORTS U CUP Men’s Hockey Championship, with his Reds beating the Alberta Golden Bears in the final 3-0.
“Coming to the program,” he gasped during team celebrations on the ice, “was probably the best decision of my life.”
Richard leads a comparatively youth-led Reds team that stole the spotlight in AUS and U SPORTS hockey all season. Look no further than Cody Morgan — the scorer of the championship-winning goal late in the second period — tournament all-star pick Michael Petizian or AUS playoff MVP Simon Pinard. In fact, nine first-year players were in UNB’s lineup Sunday night.
Yes, UNB may have won four of the last six national titles. But this was a different-looking team from their last title in 2019. Between then and now were two cancelled U CUPs and, of course, the defeat at the hands of the TMU Bold in the 2022 tournament.
Richard wasn’t one of those players in at Wolfville, Nova Scotia dressing room after last year’s loss. But he knew the young group he was a part of had something to prove. He knew how much it would mean to the leaders of the team.
“They’ve been working all year and they showed us how to play,” the young goalie said of the team’s veterans working with rookies like him. “Then the rookies stepped up. Everyone contributed in their way.”
Coach MacDougall doesn’t see the group as inexperienced at all.
“We needed those first-year veterans to be great and they were,” the venerable coach coined.
Adding another U CUP to his trophy case (and his first in his home province of PEI), MacDougall has almost seen it all when it comes to winning championships of any kind. He was prepared to deploy his younger group where he saw fit — and he could trust them.
“It was a complete team effort,” he said. “Different guys stepped up on a regular basis. Everyone made a contribution — whether it was on the score sheet or on the stat sheet with shot blocks, or getting pucks on the forecheck or backcheck.”
After a scoreless first period, UNB and Alberta traded chances to kick off the second. The best was undoubtedly an Alberta shot that turned into a gaping rebound with the net open to Richard’s left. An Alberta attacker let the shot go, but UNB’s Justin Nolet swooped in at the last second to block it with his stick shaft, keeping the game scoreless.
With just under seven minutes left in the period, Jared Freadrich of Alberta and UNB’s Pinard got tied up at the Alberta blue line in a puck contest. As the many Reds fans in the crowd shouted for a call, there was an unintended consequence: the puck was untouched and up for grabs in the Alberta zone.
UNB’s Morgan zipped past the melee between Freadrich and Pinard, grabbing the free puck. Out-skating Joe Sexsmith by a fraction of a second, Morgan cradled the wobbling puck and wristed it through the legs of Ethan Kruger. 33 minutes into the gold medal game, the Reds struck first.
“I kind of blacked out,” said the first-year forward on his recollection of the goal. “I’ve been married to five-hole all year so that’s the move I was sticking to.”
UNB didn’t let up from there. They dominated the third and deciding period, allowing just two Alberta shots and making life very easy for goaltender Richard.
The Reds have won a variety of ways through their run to the title, from blowouts over the Moncton Aigles Bleus in the AUS playoffs to a tight-played winning result over the Concordia Stingers in Thursday’s quarterfinal.
But in every elimination game, they played like a whole different unit.
In game three of the AUS final against the Saint Mary’s Huskies, UNB gave up nothing in a dominating win at home. They then gave nothing extra to Alberta — clearly the second-best team in the tournament.
“I think any successful teams in U SPORTS just find a way,” said coach MacDougall. “We had a tough first game, we had a better second game and we played our best game when it counted the most.”
After tons more shots Kruger’s way, Cole MacKay picked up the puck in front of the net and dived to the goalie’s left, beating him out with a wraparound-like move for the 2-0 goal midway through the third period. In the final four minutes, veteran scorer Austen Keating all but sealed the deal by burying a rebound.
“I think it just came down to the simple things and I think we did them really well,” said Ross MacDougall, also named a tournament all-star. The veteran defenceman — who joined the Reds in 2021 following two seasons with the Acadia Axemen — was pumped to get his first taste of trademark UNB national success.
He had to wait a year after last year’s quarterfinal upset. But of course, that doesn’t matter now.
“The best part is seeing the guys who worked so hard for [a championship] get rewarded. It’s the best feeling.”
With the win, UNB has won six of the last 11 U CUPs. It is their ninth national title in program history.
With that young crowd in Fredericton, however, things may not be slowing down any time soon. And again, Richard will be leading the way between the pipes.
He hadn’t even left the ice after winning the 2023 title. But he couldn’t help but smile at the prospect of next year’s.
“I look forward to playing with those guys for another three or four years.”