Gardiner MacDougall faces unique challenge coaching Memorial Cup hosts

University of New Brunswick Varsity Reds head coach Gardiner MacDougall will guide the host Saint John Sea Dogs through the 2022 Memorial Cup as interim coach. (Liam Richards/CP)

Gardiner MacDougall is right where you’d expect a lifelong hockey coach to be: at the rink, post-practice, and ready to talk hockey.

In other words, it feels like business as usual for the longtime bench boss. Only, rather than bearing the usual red and black of the University of New Brunswick men’s hockey program, MacDougall’s backdrop is adorned with the black and royal blue logo of the QMJHL’s Saint John Sea Dogs – hosts of the 2022 Memorial Cup, and the team he’s now tasked with taking all the way to the tournament’s top spot as the club’s interim head coach.

The team’s announcement in May of MacDougall’s temporary post – he’ll return to the Reds following this stint with the Sea Dogs – accompanied the news that they’d relieved first-year head coach Gordie Dwyer of his duties. Dwyer coached the club to a 47-17-1-3 record in 2021-22, a second-place finish in the Maritimes Division, and third overall in the QMJHL thanks to a red-hot winning streak down the stretch. But after the Sea Dogs lost in the first round of the playoffs, losing in the series’ fifth and final game and falling to the sixth-seed Rimouski Oceanic, Sea Dogs management decided a fresh start was needed in the form of a coaching change ahead of the Memorial Cup.

So, MacDougall got the call. He asked for a day to think it over, but the answer was ultimately an obvious one for one of the most prominent names in New Brunswick hockey.

"This special occasion is, you know, it's the most prestigious tournament in Canada – certainly at the amateur level – and it has such a historic value in the hockey world,” MacDougall told Sportsnet last month, partway through his first week with the team and fresh off his fourth practice with his new squad. “When are you ever going to get this opportunity? I'm one hour away from Saint John, I've lived in New Brunswick 22 years. So, if you can help the province out, this is a duty, basically, in some ways.

“It's an unbelievable honour to be chosen to this responsibility.”

So, 24 hours later, with the blessing of his family and his colleagues at UNB who encouraged him to take the reins, he called Sea Dogs GM Trevor Georgie back. His message?

“'Okay, we gotta go fast here.”

Taking over a major-junior team as interim head coach and attempting to guide it through the most important tournament in Canadian junior hockey is certainly a unique assignment – and one for which MacDougall, as a longtime bench boss well-versed in tournament preparation and motivating players for quick success, is uniquely qualified.

Over the course of his two decades at the helm of the UNB men’s hockey program in Fredericton, MacDougall has coached the Reds to 14 Atlantic University Sport pennants and seven National Championships, been named AUS coach of the year five times, and has twice been awarded U Sports Coach of the Year honours.

Of course, he notes, “It's a little different at UNB because you've had the team for, you know, probably 95 practices, maybe 40 or 45 games. So you've seen them 135 times.”

He watched the Sea Dogs over the course of the 2021-22 season – he’s a hockey fan, after all, and also has a history of recruiting 20-year-olds from the club to continue their careers in the U Sport system at UNB after they age out of major-junior. Of course, it never crossed his mind he’d be coaching them come springtime.

In addition to coaching the Reds to the kind of success that has made his name almost synonymous with the sport in New Brunswick, MacDougall also been involved with a number of other special events in the junior hockey landscape, including several high-profile tournaments that require top-level performances without a lot of preparation time.

Every tournament brings a different roster and timeline, but the goal remains the same: To succeed through first building a solid foundation of trust.

“When you get trust, I believe you build confidence and you build commitment. When you have confidence and commitment, I think then you can get the most out of people and then you can be high performers. And that's a process, and we have to accelerate that process. A lot of times that process is throughout the whole season. We have to fast-track that and make our season now this month in preparation for the Memorial Cup.”

Since taking its current four-team tournament format in 1983, seven host clubs have won the Memorial Cup after losing in their league championship – including two in the past decade: the Shawinigan Cataractes in 2012 and the Windsor Spitfires in 2017. To further help MacDougall’s mission to make Saint John the eighth to defy the odds at home, the Sea Dogs also brought in Rocky Thompson as an assistant – he was head coach of that Spitfires club.

Taking the reins in Saint John is an undertaking MacDougall doesn’t take lightly – he’s quick to recognize the work put in by Dwyer, who led the club to regular-season success in this important year as hosts. 

“As a coach, in Gordie's case, you really feel it's unfortunate for sure because he's provided a great foundation here," said MacDougall. "The group has really proved that they can win in the regular season. No doubt, they were the hottest team in the second half of the Quebec Major Junior league season. The chance to win in the playoffs was, you know, shorter than expected. So they had the occasion to win a couple of games, but it was unfortunate.”

He also recognizes the challenge ahead not just for him, but for the group of players he’s now guiding.

“They're coming off an adverse situation – the most adversity most of them have faced. There's the adversity of losing a playoff series that they were the favourite; going home for a week to kind of get their thoughts together; and then they come back and the coach that's coached them all season is no longer there. So, that's a lot of stuff at them,” he said.

The Sea Dogs’ mission has been clear from MacDougall’s first day, and the road begins Monday against the OHL champion Hamilton Bulldogs. Dates with the WHL’s Edmonton Oil Kings and QMJHL champs, Shawinigan Cataractes, will determine if the path ahead is successful, the playoff loss left behind as nothing but a lesson learned.

“This has to be a springboard for us,” said MacDougall. “Adversity can be an instrument of the wise. I've been fortunate to have teams that have been pretty successful, and we've had times where we've had extended winning streaks, and you learn a lot on those winning streaks – but when you lose, you learn more.

“We're going to be the only team that comes into this tournament not a league champion. And so, we're the only team that can use adversity as the instrument for success. These other teams have had adversity and losses, but they haven't lost a series. So, we've had the ultimate adversity – we've been sent home, disappointed ... and now we get a second chance,” he continued. “And any time you get a second chance or a mulligan in life, you want to take full advantage of it.”

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