‘Just getting started’: Canada’s winningest university hockey coach looks at what’s next

It’s been quite a year for P.E.I.-born Gardiner MacDougall and the University of New Brunswick Reds men’s hockey team. 

UNB wrapped up the university hockey championship on Sunday night in Toronto with a 4-0 win over the Université du Québec a Trois-Rivières Patriotes to clinch the 2024 University Cup — for the second consecutive year. 

It was a perfect end to a perfect season. UNB won all 30 regular season games, all five league playoff games, and then swept through the national tournament. In fact, the Reds didn’t give up even a single goal as it powered its way through the three final games to win the national title.

UNB men’s hockey head coach Gardiner 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)

This season also included the 600th career win for head coach MacDougall, making him the most winning coach in Canadian men’s university hockey history. The team celebrated his 489th regular season win with the presentation of a special jersey.

“It’s interesting when you’re in the in the heat of it, in the process, said MacDougall, who was born in Bedeque, P.E.I. “You just think of the next practice or the next game.” 

It’s almost one of those fairy-tale seasons. Only in this case, I guess Cinderella kept her shoes on.— Gardiner MacDougall, UNB Reds men’s hockey coach

“But I think when you look at it, it’s almost one of those fairy-tale seasons. Only in this case, I guess Cinderella kept her shoes on.”

Perfect season

MacDougall said he focused on keeping things as normal as possible going into the final game of the season.

“At UNB, we talk about trying to be the best you can when it is most important, and I think this group really embodied that, bringing their best performance when it counts the most,” MacDougall said.

“I think if you look at the statistics, you’d have to go a long ways probably to find a season where you go 43 and 0.”

A hockey coach wearing a suit and tie stands on a bench watching his team play
This season also included the 600th career win for Gardiner MacDougall, making him the most winning coach in Canadian university history. (James West Photography )

MacDougall, also known as Coach Mac, said the success of the team is all about the people who are part of it. 

“Our objective was to go back-to-back and it’s not easy to do — to be consistent, to go back-to-back,” MacDougall said.

“I think this group, they love getting together, they love competing, they love making one another better, and I think we’ve had great leadership, and just obviously a historic group.”

MacDougall said he and the team have a couple of big days coming up, including a visit to the New Brunswick legislature and a UNB rally in Fredericton.

P.E.I. roots

MacDougall said he was blessed to be born and brought up on P.E.I., where he learned his love of the game. 

“We’re a smaller community and we had an arena. I got to spend lots of time as a young youth coming up there,” he said. 

“My dad was an avid hockey player and just an avid hockey enthusiast — and he loved to win. So I think that was passed on, the competitive edge.”

A hockey team with a 2023 championship banner
The UNB team won back-to-back national titles, including 2023’s championship win in Charlottetown, a proud moment for the team’s Islander coach. (UPEI Photography)

Now, MacDougall said, the next challenge could be to three-peat. Next year’s U Sports final for men’s hockey will be held in Ottawa.

“It’s never been done by our program and certainly that would be an objective,” said MacDougall, noting there are a lot of Ontario-born players on the Reds.

“A lot of work to do before then. But it’s always good to have a purpose and an objective going forward for the season.”

WATCH | MacDougall reflects on the year that was — and the one ahead:

University hockey coach with P.E.I. roots looks back at a perfect season

Head coach Gardiner MacDougall led the University of New Brunswick men’s hockey team through a perfect season that culminated in the Reds’ second consecutive win of the U Sports University Cup. MacDougall, who was born and raised near Bedeque, P.E.I., reflects on the past season and what’s ahead.

Some sports publications, including The Hockey News, are describing the UNB Reds as a dynasty.

MacDougall isn’t willing to go that far. “That’ll be up to historians and the sports reporters to put that label on us, I guess,” he said.

“But I use the words ‘JGS’ and that means ‘just getting started’… We’re excited for the coming year, and we’ll see where everything lays when it’s all finished.”

Winning culture

Norman Beck is the colour commentator for the UPEI men’s hockey team and a former UPEI player.

“I guess you could probably bring any superlative or adjective that you want to insert into the season that was for the Reds,” Beck said Wednesday. “Historic, unimaginable, inconceivable, unprecedented. I’ve been following university hockey for 50 years and I’ve never seen a performance like it.”

A man with a beard wearing a UPEI hockey shirt stands with the rink in the background
Norman Beck is the colour commentator for the UPEI men’s hockey team and played for UPEI. (Shane Hennessey/CBC )

Beck said he has watched UNB’s success grow over the last couple of decades. 

“There’s been a winning culture that’s been established, a standard of excellence that’s really been unparalleled,,” Beck said. 

“That winning culture permeates from year to year, and it makes it attractive for people to go there, and who doesn’t want to be part of a winner, right?”

I’ve been following university hockey for 50 years and I’ve never seen a performance like it​​​​​.— Norman Beck, UPEI men’s hockey colour commentator 

Beck said he looks forward to seeing what MacDougall and his UNB team do next. 

“What do you do now? Do you go for two, go for three perfect seasons?” Beck said.

“Losing has been a relatively foreign concept for them, so who knows?”

WATCH | Capping off a perfect regular season: 

#TheMoment a N.B. hockey team made history with a 30-0 winning streak

The University of New Brunswick men’s hockey team became the first U Sports hockey team to win 30 consecutive games, going undefeated in their regular season and earning a place in the history books.

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