By Ryan Stelter, U SPORTS Men’s Hockey Correspondent
On March 19 at the Aitken University Centre in Fredericton, the UNB Varsity Reds celebrated their second national title in a row after a 5-3 win over the Saskatchewan Huskies. Amongst all the pandemonium on the ice was 24-year-old Philippe Maillet. With his second U Cup medal hanging on his neck, Maillet’s university career had come to an end.
With the madness of March going down south of the border, Maillet and the Reds were going on their own wild ride.
Along with his second U Cup championship, Maillet was named the U Cup MVP, named to the U Cup All-Star team, won the Senator Joseph A. Sullivan Trophy as the U SPORTS Player of the Year, while also being named a U SPORTS First Team All-Star. Add the U SPORTS Male Athlete of the Month in March and it was a good month for Maillet.
“A lot happened in the month of March,” said Maillet, who is now playing for the Ontario (Calif.) Reign, the top development team of the Los Angeles Kings, after signing an amateur tryout agreement with the team. “It’s obviously flattering; you feel pretty good about yourself looking at the awards I won. Ultimately it is a team sport, and I’ll always put my team first. I was just happy to give my team a chance to win every game.”
This past season was Maillet’s best in a Varsity Reds sweater, as the fourth-year veteran racked up 55 points in 30 games – the most out of any player in U SPORTS. He followed his tremendous regular season with 16 points in nine games in the playoffs, including a hat trick in UNB’s first game at nationals against Queen’s. Twelve of those 16 points came in the month March, 10 of which were tallied during the University Cup tournament. Maillet attributes his career year to the work he did in the off-season.
“I was in really good shape at the start of the season and kept it up throughout the year,” said Maillet, who also scored in his debut with the Reign on Mar. 31. “I tried to focus on my work ethic, I knew the skill was going to be there but I just worked hard in practice and in games.”
UNB head coach Gardiner MacDougall was full of praise for his star forward, who has been a consistent scorer for UNB for the past four years.
“I know he wanted to play more in the key moments. I think that (his statement) he was in the best shape of his career was indicative of his performance this year,” he said. “He put the work in in the off-season and reaped the benefits during the season.”
Another player standing on the ice at the Aitken Centre was Cam Braes. The fifth-year forward had just capped off his U SPORTS career in the best way possible – single-handedly leading his team to a national title with four goals in his final game.
“My last game in a UNB sweater, it was pretty surreal,” he said. “That’s a game I’ll remember for a long time, really couldn’t ask for anything better.”
It was Braes’ third national title, and fourth national final appearance. He and the Varsity Reds suffered a tough 6-3 loss to the Alberta Golden Bears in the 2015 final. Braes did not leave all his offence for the final game though, as he finished fifth in the nation in scoring with 42 points (15 G, 27 A). The 26-year-old is now playing with the Stockton Heat of the AHL, the top affiliate of the Calgary Flames.
The Varsity Reds had a tremendous regular season, finishing in top spot in the AUS with a 25-2-3 record. They averaged 4.93 goals per game, while giving up just 1.90 goals against per contest, thanks to the solid goaltending of Etienne Marcoux and Alex Dubeau.
“We didn’t go through the front door which was upsetting,” Braes said. “I think we had a veteran group, we learned from our mistakes and were able to take advantage of our home ice at nationals.”
Maillet said it gave the Varsity Reds a bit of a “head shake” when they fell to StFX. Coach MacDougall also noted that his players had a lot of pride and wanted to win the AUS title, but saw it as a form of adversity that his team had to battle back from.
“Sometimes you have to go a little back to go farther ahead,” he said. “Instead of losing confidence they just worked harder in practice and an increased mindset to find a way to be successful. I think grit is the key to any kind of success in life and in sport.”
MacDougall has seen plenty of championship teams in his day, but more recently, the Varsity Reds have won three out of the last five U SPORTS titles. With small window to win national titles at the university level, the current UNB run is forming a bit of modern-day dynasty.
“(Winning a national title) is the ultimate goal every year when you play at UNB,” Maillet said.
“Fredericton is a good-sized city, and UNB truly is the big ticket in town,” Braes added. “The fans have been great my entire five years there. They were unbelievable at the finals – it was electric. It was special in the city after we won to see how happy people in the community were for us.”
Looking back, MacDougall is happy the Varsity Reds were able to give back to those loyal fans and the university itself by winning the national championship on home ice.
“Those are special moments for our fans, for the university, for the city, and for the province really,” said MacDougall, whose team will also host the University Cup next season, looking to become just the third school to win three straight national championships. “To be the absolute best in the country is really special.”