Committed to improvement, UNB men’s hockey team aims for golden end to perfect season

Growing up playing hockey in Saint John, N.B, Kale McCaullum knew about the University of New Brunswick men’s hockey team, the contending force in Canadian university hockey from just up north.

Despite playing most of his hockey in his hometown going on to play major junior with the Saint John Sea Dogs for two seasons, the looming presence up the road became a clearer option as his junior career wore on.

“I didn’t travel to Fredericton to watch the games growing up, but I had heard about the program and its winning tradition,” the second-year defenceman said. “It was pretty special to get the call from [head coach] Gardiner MacDougall and [assistant coach] Rob Hennigar. It’s known as the best program in Canada, and they bring a lot of high-character guys in.”

McCallum, along with the rest of the Reds, will travel to Toronto this week in search of a second straight U Sports Men’s Hockey Championship, hoping to build on their 2023 title won in Charlottetown and cap off a historic perfect season.

WATCH | UNB Reds men’s hockey program ready for 2024 U Cup:

UNB men’s hockey team ready to complete historic season

Undefeated all season, the University of New Brunswick men’s hockey team has a chance to be the first in U Sports hockey history to win nationals without a single loss.

When UNB drops the puck on their University Cup tournament on Thursday afternoon against the Brock University Badgers, they do so having won all 30 regular-season games before completing a perfect 5-0-0 playoff run.

They also won each pre-season contest, with their last loss coming in the 2023 playoffs on March 7, 2023 — a 6-5 overtime defeat to the Saint Mary’s Huskies in the Atlantic University Sport (AUS) final.

“It’s special, and the group has done a great job of the process. There’s a lot of belief in the group that they’re going to find a way to get the job done, and I think they have relished the process and are getting a bit better every day,” MacDougall said as he looks to lead the program to a 10th U Cup title.

“We have a group where there’s a two-way trust between coaches and players, and when you have trust you can set those standards.”

A crowd fills a hockey arena.
The UNB Reds their home game in the 2024 AUS men’s hockey final, while tickets for the game in Moncton flew of shelves within minutes. (James West/for UNB Athletics)

Since taking over the Reds men’s hockey program in 2000, MacDougall has built it into one of the winningest hockey teams in the world. The Reds often rival the skill level of top NCAA teams and send players to the professional ranks each season.

Still, even in the 20 AUS championships and nine national titles, the group has yet to achieve a perfect season from pre-season to University Cup, a mark they can set with just three more wins at this week’s tournament, streaming live on, CBC Gem and the CBC Sports app. 

A community pillar for Fredricton

For MacDougall, surrounding the program with the best possible people — not just good hockey players — has been critical in building the Reds in his vision. Without a major junior hockey team in the area, the players take on much of that role, being role models to young hockey players and setting a standard for commitment.

At the same time, he has established UNB as a pillar of the community, setting up the Junior Reds youth programs and hockey schools. As a former teacher, he brings his skills with children to the role he finds himself in now, as a coach and mentor among young people and student-athletes.

“Playing for this program is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. We’re the closest group I’ve ever been a part of, and there are so many little traditions that Gardiner and this program have that really bring in not just the best hockey players but the best people,” McCallum added. “It’s a culture of winning, but we also just care so much about one another.”

While many U Sports programs often have to draw primarily on the players from the surrounding areas, the Reds have established themselves as a draw to Canadian hockey players coming out of junior, wanting to get an education while playing within that winning culture.

For fourth-year forward Isaac Nurse, younger brother of PWHL Toronto’s Sarah Nurse, it was an easy decision to make his way east despite not visiting New Brunswick before signing on with the program.

“I didn’t have to do much digging, but after a bit of research I figured out that the Reds are where you want to be if you want to play pro hockey someday and ultimately win, and it has hands-down been one of the best organizations,” he said. “It would have been hard to turn down a phone call from Gardiner; he’s such an uplifting and positive guy.”

While Nurse, a native of Hamilton, Ont., will welcome his sister and several other family members to the stands of the former Maple Leaf Gardens, capping off the perfect season is all the focus for the Reds heading into the weekend.

Entering the tournament as the top seed, having won the AUS, scoring a national-high 172 goals and only allowing 47 through 30 regular-season games, UNB is the heavy favourite to take the national banner.

However, this year is far different than last. Nearly 20 players return from the squad that lifted the 2023 trophy, a stark difference from last season when only now-graduated defenceman Noah Carroll was on the 2019 championship roster but didn’t play in the final.

Although, even with the experience and reputation, the team isn’t thinking that far down the road. It is keeping the focus on progressing through each round and getting past a Badgers team that had one of the best goalies in Canada, Connor Ungar, with his .932 save percentage.

“It’s not going to be easy, but we’ve just been having lots of fun sticking with the process and going with the flow and doing the little things right to keep us going and keep us motivated, and that’s not going to stop,” Nurse said.

“If we play the UNB way, we’re going to be just fine.”

U SPORTS Championships take centre stage

  • The men’s hockey championship isn’t the only U Sports National Championship this weekend. The women’s hockey championship will take place in Saskatoon, and the men’s and women’s volleyball tournaments will be held at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., and Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.

  • The Carleton Ravens women’s basketball team continued a run of 13 straight years in which a school team has won a national title, topping the University of Saskatchewan Huskies in Edmonton. The men failed to qualify for their tournament.

  • Only qualifying as hosts, the Laval Rouge et Or men’s basketball team claimed its first U Sports championship in thrilling fashion, beating every conference champion through the tournament, including the OUA champion Queen’s Gaels, 77-71, in the national final.

  • Trevor Longo of the Queen’s men’s hockey team and 36 other students have committed to raising money for the Canadian Cancer Society through hockey-related events in the Kingston community and are tuning their flagship Commerce vs Engineering Rivalry Game on March 14, hoping to raise funds through the Cure Cancer Classic. 

  • The Canadian Elite Basketball League announced details of its 2024 draft, making Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association student-athletes eligible alongside those from U Sports.

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