By: Monty Mosher
It's never easy when you play hockey for the UNB Reds men's team.
Chris Clapperton knows that as well as anyone.
The Reds always win, right? According to popular wisdom they claim the AUS and the nationals every year.
It only seems that way, of course, and Clapperton will tell you there is a pressure associated with that thinking. Some might say around Fredericton the year is a failure without the gold medal at the end of the University Cup.
It comes with wearing the jersey says Clapperton, a 25-year-old forward from Cap-d'Espoir, Que., who is this year's conference MVP. He had 47 points to place second in the nation in scoring.
For the record, UNB, already clinched for this year's nationals regardless of the outcome of their league final with St. Francis Xavier, has won six national championships under head coach Gardiner MacDougall over the past 11 years.
Won nationals in first two seasons
They won in 2016 and 2017, Clapperton's first two seasons with the team, before missing last year. Alberta, last year's champion, has won three of the past five and will be a formidable opponent again this year with the nationals in Lethbridge.
All teams start fresh each September. Players come and go and each team is left to make a name for itself.
But Clapperton said the sting of last year's disappointment lingers. After a resounding quarter-final win over Concordia, they lost 5-4 in overtime to the X-Men in the semifinals. They rallied to beat Saskatchewan for the bronze medal, but it was small consolation.
"UNB is recognized everywhere because the hockey is very good," said Clapperton, a fifth-round pick of the Florida Panthers in 2013 and a former minor pro with the Orlando Solar Bears.
"I came here and we won two national championships and it was a great moment in my life. But we lost last year in the semifinals. For sure, this year, we have almost the same group as last year and we're very hungry to win. We take this opportunity very seriously."
It is Clapperton's approach that excites his head coach.
"Chris has total enthusiasm for hockey and is among our hardest workers at practice and in the gym," said MacDougall. "He is a student of the game and is always finding ways to get better. It is super to see these efforts paying off for him and our team as he has ascended to have the best year of his career."
Played in Memorial Cup
Clapperton played four seasons in the QMJHL, the first three for Blainville-Boisbriand before moving on to Rimouski for his last year. The Oceanic went to the Memorial Cup in his last year there.
He turned pro the next year, playing 17 games, before joining UNB.
He was influenced by former UNB goalie Etienne Marcoux, one of Clapperton's good friends. "He said good things about the program. I was in the pros at the time.
"But I wanted to come here. I have my degree now. I think school is very important these days. The people who make it to the big leagues is a low percentage. I wanted to get my degree and keep playing hockey because that is my passion."
He didn't speak much English upon his arrival, but saw a move to Fredericton and the Reds program as a way to help him become more fluent in a second language.
He hasn't lost any desire to play professionally, but that can wait until the curtain falls on the university hockey season.
Playing Canadian university hockey remains a road less travelled for players wanting to earn a pro pay cheque. Clapperton understands that.
"Our group here, and the coaching staff, everyone wants to get better," he said. "Everybody wants to see an upgrade in their game. The coaches are so demanding. The players themselves, too. We push ourselves every day.
"Probably every player here had a chance to go professional and they decided to come here to get their degree and get better at hockey. To play hockey after is probably the goal for every player in our room after they get their degree, either in North America or Europe."
MacDougall a big influence
MacDougall was a big part of Clapperton's decision to pick UNB. The fact the team won a lot didn't hurt, either.
"I always was part of winning teams and wanted to keep it that way,' he said. "Hockey is fun when you're winning. As I go to school at the same time I enjoy my time here."
He respects the team wears a target every year, even when the Reds aren't defending champions. While UNB wears the crown this year, the X-Men won conference honours in 2016 and 2017.
"Every year we are projected to win everything," Clapperton said. "But I feel it is just great to have that pressure. It's a fun sport and it's fun to have the pressure to win. We try to enjoy it."
Philippe Maillet won conference MVP in 2015 and 2017. Maillet influenced Clapperton.
"I learned a lot from him when he was here and hopefully someone will learn from me," he said. "There are a lot of players here in their first and second years who will take the team to another level. There are just so many good players here."
Clapperton, also a first all-star in the AUS, is the conference nominee for U Sports player of the year.
(Monty Mosher is an award-winning sportswriter in Halifax. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)