Top of the hill: Gardiner MacDougall’s Varsity Red legacy

For Gardiner MacDougall, hockey has been part of his life since he was a young kid. Coming from Bedeque, P.E.I., which was a hockey hotbed, he spent most of his childhood at a rink.

“I was kind of a ‘rink rat’ so I was at the rink all the time. At the high school age, I would play on three teams at a time. The high school team, a midget team and my own midget team and then I would coach the bantam team,” said MacDougall.

He coached a women’s club team at St. Francis Xavier University while he was a student there, but it wasn’t until later on when he was out in Manitoba teaching that he really got into coaching.

“A good friend of mine was coaching the midget team there and I went along one weekend for him on a trip to a tournament and kinda enjoyed it,” said MacDougall. “He’s now the general manager for the Kitchener Rangers.”

It was then he decided to get into coaching more. He coached for multiple teams in Manitoba and Saskatchewan before taking the position of head coach of the University of New Brunswick Varsity Reds men’s hockey team.

Gardiner MacDougall has led the University of New Brunswick men’s hockey team to win six of their seven championships. (Caitlin Dutt/AQ)

“I had come down for an interview two years prior and I was really impressed with the city, the arena and the people,” said MacDougall.

“I hadn’t really thought much of university hockey at that time because you coach junior and then you mostly go either western league or pro. It’s funny how things work, at the time there was an opening to go to the western league, or pro in the U.S. and the N.B. opportunity. I felt family-wise UNB was the best opportunity.”

MacDougall has now been with the men’s hockey team for 18 years and has been very successful in that time. He has lead UNB to win six of their seven national championships. He is the all-time Atlantic Conference leader in total wins including regular season and play-off victories and in 2006 became the coach with the most wins in UNB history.

He believes the strong foundation under the program has been a huge part of it’s success since he started.

“UNB’s lucky that we’ve had a lot of successful coaches that laid a foundation and gives aspirations to do well at a high-performance level,” said MacDougall.

He is also thankful for his staff and players who have helped him along the way.

He said the strong culture, the positive experiences the players have, and the hard-working staff have all helped to keep the program strong and successful.

“If you go back to I think it’s 1997, every graduate of the program has been to a national championship,” said MacDougall. “I think since 2007 every graduate of the program has won at least one national championship. So, we’re lucky to have kept that culture and leadership in our dressing room.”

Alumnus Denny Johnson believes part of MacDougall’s success is due to the fact that he truly cares about his players. (Caitlin Dutt/AQ)

MacDougall is really proud of how much progress he has seen over the years.

“I remember back in either 2003 or 2004 I was looking over the marks from the first semester at Christmas, and all of a sudden there was a 3.5 [grade point average], and there was another 3.5 and then there was another 3.5 and I know when I started there was two Academic All-Canadians and our record now is 14 Academic All-Canadians.”

He said the successes on and off the ice are really great to see as a coach.

“You get phone calls from players that you coached about the difference the UNB hockey program made, more so after the fact than they probably realize. Our alumni have done really well,” said MacDougall.

“We see the guys who’ve got the NHL deals or gone pro which is nice, but then there’s some others that have gone on to teaching or have become successful businessmen. We’ve had a number of players who have gone on to be lawyers or doctors … I could write a book on proud moments.”

Alumnus Denny Johnson is proud to say he once played for MacDougall.

“He was the best technical coach I’ve ever had,” said Jonhson. “Arguably the best in the [Canadian Interuniversity Sport] league.”

Johnson believes Gardiner is such a good coach because he is always trying to improve his coaching skills, and he doesn’t have too much pride to realize he can always be improving.

He also genuinely cares about his players according to Johnson.

“He pays attention to players and realizes there’s more than just hockey. For most teams it’s hockey first and everything else comes second, but not for him,” said Johnson.

To MacDougall the men’s hockey team is his NHL and he couldn’t imagine coaching anywhere else. (Caitlin Dutt/AQ)

“I was a bit lost when I came to UNB, I didn’t graduate high school, and only had a 61 average. Gardiner not only made me a better player, he fostered an environment to make me a better man as well.”

Johnson says he knows that MacDougall has been given offers to move up in his career and go on to the NHL or go on to other universities.

MacDougall said he has been very lucky as a coach, and he doesn’t believe he’ll want to move on. He loves to help make a difference in peoples lives and he can do that here.

“Our theme this year is JGS, just getting started. I think as a program we’ve accomplished a lot but really we’re just excited about the future ahead and as a coach there’s lots more challenges up ahead,” said MacDougall.

“I’ve been really lucky that the university and what we have here is my NHL.”

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