CHARLOTTETOWN, PEI – When the UNB Reds first hit the ice in late August, moments like Sunday’s U SPORTS championship are the goal. Really, it’s the case for any program. But for UNB, it’s the standard.
Some might even say it’s expected – for the players; it’s why they commit to spending their U SPORTS years at the Aitken Centre in Fredericton.
Since head coach Gardiner MacDougall took over the program in 2000, the UNB Reds have set a standard – one that expects winning and one that, on Sunday in Charlottetown, PEI, downed the Alberta Golden Bears 3-0 to win the program’s ninth U SPORTS banner.
“It’s so tough to win this tournament; there are so many good teams here,” MacDougall said. “It’s parity-packed. You have to find ways to separate your group from the rest, and we found ways.”
The 2023 U CUP wasn’t an easy one for the Reds. In the first round, the Concordia Stingers pushed them to the brink, but they held on 2-1. “Survive and advance,” MacDougall said at the time.
For nearly every player on the team, the win over Concordia proved they could do it at the national championship level.
In the second round, it was a complete game in a 6-3 victory over the defending U CUP champion UQTR Patriotes. Yet, it was the final 3-0 victory over the Golden Bears that solidified their place atop university hockey for the first time since 2019.
“We played our best game when it counted the most,” he said, gold medal around his neck after coaching his team to a shutout, only allowing two shots in the third period. “We had tremendous buy-in, and that’s the secret of any successful team; we had a good tough test and got better each game we played.”
A new era gets a first U SPORTS win
While the Reds captured their 9th title in program history, it’s still a watershed moment for the program. In 2019, their last title, only Noah Caroll was on the roster. However, he didn’t play in the final.
In the first post-pandemic season of 2021-22, the Reds fell in the U CUP quarterfinal to the TMU Bold, marking the end of the winning era that featured Tyler Boland, Rylan Parenteau and more and welcoming a time led by the likes of Isaac Nurse, Austen Keating, Adam McCormick and others.
On Sunday and throughout the 2022-23 season, Caroll (now 25) was critical in the group’s success, buoying a youthful Reds team to the first title in a new generation.
“It means everything to this group. After that quarterfinal upset last season, we really wanted revenge, and it just feels amazing to achieve that,” said second-year defenceman Adam McCormick. “This means the world to us; it’s hard to describe how much it means.”
Although the current group hadn’t won a title, the Reds had captured two AUS conference championships with the young group and battled through challenging moments throughout the season.
With the standards of winning, the Reds’ rookies and second years had to mature quickly within the roster and excel under the immense pressure that comes with putting on the UNB crest.
“We needed those first-year veterans to be great for us, and they were,” MacDougall said. “The strength of our team is different guys stepped up on a regular basis, and they’re determined to win. I can go through the lineup and see everyone contributed.”
FISU gold medal paves U SPORTS path
Although it was the first gold medal for many of the players, a few got a preview taste earlier in the year with Team Canada at the Lake Placid 2023 FISU Games.
MacDougall, who led Canada’s quest for gold in Northern New York, brought McCormick, Austen Keating and Brady Gilmour, giving them all a chance to play in knockout games with a medal on the line.
When they returned, they did so with a winning experience, knowing how to handle high-pressure environments like a sold-out away rink, similar to the Herb Brooks Arena’s capacity crowd in January.
“Coach just wanted us to build on that win in Lake Placid, and it really carried into the second half,” McCormick said. “That’s what we did and did a great job, and this is the result at the end of the day.
For the four of them, it was a triple gold season, winning FISU, AUS and U SPORTS, once again establishing the Reds hockey program as one of the best in the country while also helping lift Canada to international gold.
“It’s so important those guys got to play at the [FISU Games] because they brought back that winning feeling,” added MacDougall.
As they move forward into next season and beyond, the UNB Reds have a new baseline – one that erases the slip in 2022 and gives the program a new platform to build on heading into the 2023-24 season and beyond.