UNB Reds look to maintain dynasty as University Cup men's hockey championship returns

The University of New Brunswick Reds have won three of the last five U Sports men's hockey championships and look to add another, while the Ryerson Rams make their tournament debut when the University Cup hits Acadia's campus.

Watch the men's U Sports hockey tourney live from Wolfville, N.S.

The UNB Reds look to defend their national championship after winning their fourth straight Atlantic University Sport (AUS) title. (James West/UNB Athletics)

Two years after the U Sports men's hockey championship was abruptly cancelled in the beginnings of the pandemic, Canada's eight best university teams head to Acadia University and Wolfville, N.S., looking to win the David Johnston University Cup. 

In addition to Acadia, the tournament features New Brunswick (UNB), St. Francis Xavier (St.FX), Brock, Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières (UQTR), Ryerson, Alberta and the University of British Columbia (UBC). 

Outside of Acadia, which qualified as host, and Ryerson, which won the third-place game in Ontario, each team reached the final of their respective conference.

Alberta enters the tournament as the top-seeded team, taking on an Acadia team that missed the AUS playoffs and sit in the eighth seed. Meanwhile, No. 2 UNB takes on No. 7 Ryerson, No. 3 UQTR face No. 6 UBC, and No. 4 St.FX test themselves against No. 5 Brock.

The tournament runs March 31- April 3, streaming live on CBC Gem and CBC Sports' website.

UNB Reds are favourites, looking to add to dynasty 

The UNB Reds are the clear favourites heading into the national championship. Despite losing two star players, Tyler Boland and Nicolas Guay, to American Hockey League teams midway through the season, the 2021-22 AUS champions are rolling into nationals. 

Their head coach, Gardiner MacDougall, enters the tournament with more than 500 regular-season and playoff wins with UNB, alongside seven national championships. But while he's looking to add an eighth to his resume, it has been a year unlike any other for the Reds. 

"This is a very different group  they're writing a book that's never been written here at UNB," MacDougall told CBC Sports of a COVID disrupted AUS season. "There's a tremendous atmosphere in the group and a tremendous work ethic."

Led by captain Sam Dove-McFalls,  UNB plays a fast-paced, physical style of hockey that limits the number of shots from their opponent. In December, the team weathered a slew of injuries, playing with 15 skaters in their final games before the break. Still, they topped the AUS regular season standings and captured their fourth straight AUS title. 

Facing Ryerson in the quarter-final, there is every expectation that UNB qualifies for the final. 

UBC turns to stellar goaltending in return to nationals

The UBC Thunderbirds have not played a University Cup game since 1977. (They did qualify for the cancelled tournament in 2020.) In their return, they hope for a magical ride with a large graduating class. 

They reached the Canada West final but were swept in the best-of-three series by the Alberta Golden Bears.

Goaltender Rylan Toth has been integral to UBC's success. In a season that featured an emergency callup to the NHL's Vancouver Canucks, the senior posted a .920 save percentage and faced the most shots (474) in Canada West. 

"We have a lot of older guys, so we kind of see this as the last kick of the can, especially since we went to nationals, and it got shut down," Toth told CBC Sports. "The year off was tough, but I tried to take the positives and enjoyed Vancouver, doing things I wouldn't get to do in the season."

UBC faces UQTR in their quarter-final, as they try to take down the OUA champions. 

Rams look to continue making program history

The Ryerson Rams are in the midst of their best season in program history. After failing to advance past the second round of the playoffs since 1962, the Rams exorcised their demons. winning the bronze medal game and qualifying for their first-ever University Cup. 

Despite finishing top three in their division over the last five seasons, the Rams could never get past the second round. In 2022, they defeated the Waterloo Warriors 4-3 in overtime, after coming back from a 3-1 deficit with eight minutes remaining.

In the semifinal, they fell to the OUA runner-up Brock Badgers before beating the McGill Redbirds in the bronze medal game, clinching their spot at the national championship and a quarter-final date with the heavily favoured UNB Reds. 

"We're going to relish the underdog mentality," head coach Johnny Duco told CBC Sports.  "It's usually us fighting tooth and nail as the favourites against the underdog, so it will be fun to go there and see what happens — we're playing with house money now."

While OUA leading goalscorer Kyle Bollers leads the Rams, they call upon a diverse offensive group, with 11 players scoring through their four playoff games, making them tough to defend against.

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