By: Dwayne Tingley
Gardiner MacDougall admits he was not certain he would survive his first season as head coach of the UNB Reds.
Twenty years later, the Bedeque, P.E.I. native has led the Reds to seven U SPORTS national hockey championships, including the last two years in a row and six in the last nine seasons.
"It wasn't looking too good in my first month at UNB," MacDougall said. "We got off to a 2-5-1 start and there was some second-guessing about whether this was the right job for me.
"Things got straightened out because I have always had a lot of wonderful support from the university, the city of Fredericton and from people all over New Brunswick. We've had a lot of success and we're looking for more."
The Reds open the 2019-20 AUS season Friday, Sept. 27, when they visit the Saint Mary's Huskies.
The Reds, who are coming off a 25-3-2 record, have 18 returning players from last year's championship team and just four rookies.
"On paper, we're looking pretty good, but we know that we are going to be challenged right from the start," said MacDougall, a three-time U SPORTS national coach of the year.
"We look at the other teams in the conference and every team has made improvements," he added. "Because they got better, we have to get better too. There is such great parity in our league that you have to focus on making improvements on a regular basis."
Key returnees on the Reds roster include: defencemen Matt Murphy, Olivier LeBlanc and Marcus McIvor; goaltender Rylan Parenteau and forwards Kris Bennett, Tyler Boland and Mark Simpson.
Rookie goaltender Samuel Harvey backstopped the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies to the Memorial Cup championship last spring.
The Huskies (19-10-1) will open the season in their new home—the sparkling Dauphinee Centre, which seats 850 and has room for 1,200 spectators.
The Huskies, who were eliminated by the X-Men in last year's AUS semifinals, will be led by fifth-year defenceman Austyn Hardie, a former stalwart on the blueline for the Halifax Mooseheads of the QMJHL.
Head coach Trevor Stienburg will be working to revamp the Huskies' offence, which has been decimated by graduations and departures.
"We're starting a little bit behind the eight-ball, but I'm liking the fact we have to put a little more salt on us," Stienburg said.
Other returnees are: goaltenders Eric Brassard, Xavier Potvin and Marc Terriault; defencemen Jacob Friend, Nick Welsh, Mark Trickett, Dylan Di Perna, Adam Bateman and Alex Peters (after Christmas) and forwards Anthony Repaci, Stephen Johnson, Dawson Theede, Logan DeNoble, Bronson Beaton, Conor McGlynn and Noah Zilbert.
"We are excited to play in our new arena and hope we can get some traction early as points are so important at the end of the year," said Stienburg.
League play commences tomorrow, Wednesday, Sept. 25, when the St. Francis Xavier X-Men (15-3-2) visit the Dalhousie Tigers (7-23-0) in Halifax.
The X-Men, who were defeated by the UNB Reds in last year's AUS final, finished third at the U SPORTS national championship and head coach Brad Peddle is expecting another strong showing.
"We have a veteran group with significant experience that is very motivated to accomplish more," Peddle said. "We will need to lean on our leadership group for success. The conference is the tightest it has ever been and it will be a battle every night."
The X-Men have 19 returning players and four rookies. Key veterans are: defencemen Cole MacDonald and Santino Centorame and forwards Mark Tremaine, Sam Studnicka, Matt Needham, Bryson Cianfrone.
"We will need to stay healthy and play to our strengths on a consistent basis," Peddle said. "We have a very tight group that understands we have to do everything as a team to have any success."
Tigers head coach Chris Donnelly said his team will be looking to pick up where it left off last season, when it won seven of its last 12 games in an all-out effort to earn a playoff berth.
"Our program continues to add character individuals," Donnelly said. "Our new recruiting group features players with a very high level of skill and intelligence as well as leadership skills...our group is ready to compete in the very competitive AUS conference."
Other integral returnees are: forwards Colton Heffley, Chandler Yakimowicz, Jonathan Cyr, Kelly Bent, Andrew Shewfelt, Campbell Pickard, Dillon Boucher and Connor Donaghey and defencemen Aiden Jamieson, Zack Taylor, Duncan MacIntyre, Connor Welsh, Kyle Yewchuk, Jesse Lussier and Jake Barter.
In other games scheduled for Friday night: Dalhousie will visit the UPEI Panthers (15-14-1) in Charlottetown and the Acadia Axemen (10-18-2) will host the Moncton Aigles Bleus (14-13-3) in Wolfville, N.S.
Panthers head coach Forbes MacPherson has set his sights on making the postseason.
"Our focus is playing a certain style of hockey, compete hard every night and work towards making the playoffs," MacPherson said. "There are many high-end programs and teams in the conference. Winning is very difficult and you need to always be at your best."
The Axemen, who will host the U SPORTS University Cup national championship in March, enter the season with a veteran roster and just three newcomers.
Defenceman Liam Maaskant, who serves as team captain, and forward Stephen Harper are back with the Axemen for their fifth season.
"We have to be structurally sound and be smart to be successful," said head coach Darren Burns. "We don't have a ton of offence so we need to score by committee and do the little things right.
"I say it every year, but this will be the tightest the league has ever been," said Burns, who is entering his 18th season at the helm of the Axemen.
Aigles Bleus head coach Judes Vallée said his roster is young, but improvements have been made on the blue line.
"Maybe it is going to be tough for us to score goals and we have some question marks, but we want to fight for the playoffs," he said.
"We must have a good work ethic for each game. If we play with discipline, we can create some surprises."
The Aigles Bleus feature 15 returning players and six rookies. Key returnees are: goaltender Étienne Montpetit, defenceman Vincent Lanoue and forwards Vincent Deslauriers and Maxime St-Cyr.
Games set for Saturday are: UPEI at StFX, UNB at Acadia and Moncton at Saint Mary's.