‘He is UNB’: Gardiner MacDougall’s Reds legacy driven by passion, making a difference

Around two weeks ago, Gardiner McDougall, head coach of the University of New Brunswick (UNB) Reds men’s hockey team, received a phone call from Scott Salmon, senior vice president of high performance and hockey operations at Hockey Canada.

The Bedeque, P.E.I., native began coaching UNB in the 2000-01 season, helping build a winning culture founded on energy, enthusiasm and love. Following the 2023-24 University Cup — which saw UNB cap off a perfect season where the Reds didn’t concede a single contest while claiming back-to-back national titles — Salmond reached out to see if MacDougall had an interest in coaching Canada’s men’s U-18 team at the 2024 IIHF U18 World Championship in Finland.

After consulting his wife, checking in on family plans and subsequent phone calls with Benoit Roy, senior manager of hockey operations, MacDougall pounced on the “lifetime opportunity.”

“Your life can sometimes change with a phone call,” MacDougall told CBC Sports. “It’s an unbelievable opportunity, an honour to coach the National Under-18 program and represent a duty to your country and try to get the most out of your group at the world championships in Finland.” 

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The U-18 world championship will kick off on April 25 and run through May 5, giving MacDougall a chance to leave a lasting mark on the future of Canadian hockey.

MacDougall’s Team Canada begins its journey for gold at the 2024 IIHF U18 World Championship against Sweden on Thursday. Captained by Porter Martone of Peterborough, Ont., the Canadian crew takes to the ice at noon ET, 9 a.m. PT.

“The big thing is to get better every day,” MacDougall said. “The ultimate goal for Team Canada is to win a gold medal, but we will best achieve that by finding ways to get better. 

A collector of quotes

A chance to make a difference in his players’ lives drives MacDougall to coach. 

To do so, MacDougall has learned how to motivate, influence and improve the men who come through UNB’s program.

“As a coach, I pride myself on energy, enthusiasm and positivity,” MacDougall said. “You can get so much from people when you bring that energy and help them out. 

“There’s a great quote: consistency is the mother of excellence, and incremental improvement is the father. A renowned motivation guru mentioned that quote, and it’s a terrific quote to live by.” 

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That quote is a favourite for MacDougall. The self-described reader signed up for messages from a Canadian motivational speaker years ago, which helps build his quote collection, whose number seeps into the thousands.

“As a coach, you speak to your players a lot, and you have clarity as a coach — you’re not a talker, you’re a presenter,” MacDougall said. “You are trying to present a vision of what you want that day to be like and the big picture.”

‘Make a significant difference,’ UNB’s motto, and ‘Just Getting Started,’ what his associate coach, Rob Hennigar, considers MacDougall’s personal slogan, are two other phrases he lives by. Phrases which help fulfil one of his many duties as the Reds’s head coach.

“I’m trying to make everybody better,” MacDougall said. “It’s person by person — you just try to make a difference in their life.”

Rooted in UNB

Hennigar, who also played under McDougall from 2004 to 2008 and joined his coaching staff in 2014, knows MacDougall’s had his fair share of offers to leave the Reds. 

The 64-year-old served as the interim head coach for the Saint John Sea Dogs at the 2022 Memorial Cup and as Canada’s head coach at the FISU World University Games twice, but his full-time coaching commitment has remained with UNB. 

“He has certainly said no to other offers,” Hennigar said. “His number one commitment is UNB. Even this year, I think there was hesitancy [to coach Team Canada] because we’re losing a few guys, and right now, it’s a heavy recruiting season.” 

A hockey team with a 2023 championship banner
UNB celebrates winning the national championship in Charlottetown, P.E.I. in March 2023, a proud moment for Islander Gardiner MacDougall. (UPEI Photography)

MacDougall had numerous offers over his twenty-plus career, given that his coaching resume consists of over 600 wins and nine national titles, and he is the winningest coach in U Sports history.

However, MacDougall’s love for UNB has kept him in Fredericton. 

“He is UNB,” Hennigar said. “Everything he does revolves around the school. He bleeds red and black more than anyone.”

“But he’s already done his due diligence and is ready to go overseas.”

MacDougall’s passion for the Reds goes beyond hockey. He and his family are avid in the community. The coach’s wife retired this year but worked as a physical education mentor and teacher in the school’s system. 

A man in a suit holds up a jersey with 489 written on the back, with sevearal people smiling around him on an ice surface.
MacDougall poses with family members and players after being presented a jersey marking his milestone 489th win, the most in U Sports men’s hockey history. (James West/for UNB Athletics)

His daughter got three degrees from UNB, while his son snagged a business and law degree during his five-year stint at the school — now he is an NHL player agent. 

“We’ve really enjoyed the community,” McDougall said. “It’s always different opportunities and it would have to be something better than UNB, and UNB is pretty darn good.

Even then, in MacDougall’s eyes, he has already found his NHL. 

“I think if any coach ever gets the opportunity at the NHL, that’s a dream of every coach, but we’ve enjoyed it here,” MacDougall said. “At my first press conference at UNB, I said this was my NHL —  I felt ecstatic to get the job — I applied for it on two other occasions and was lucky enough to get it on the third.

“And it has certainly proved to be my NHL.”

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