The Road to Opportunity and Redemption

The Saint John Sea Dogs are on the road to opportunity and redemption.

The opportunity to enter the front door of the Memorial Cup as QMJHL President Cup Champions was slammed shut by the Rimouski Oceanic on May 11, 2022.

The details of what happened after the heartbreaking overtime upset loss on home ice may never be known.

11 days after the shocking loss, equally as shocking news spread across league and the entire Canadian Hockey League that Gordie Dwyer was out from behind the bench and that hockey lifer and famed UNB coach Gardiner MacDougall would take over the helm for the Memorial Cup.

“They called me on Saturday morning offering me the job, they wanted to know that night. I told them to give me a day, but they insisted, I let them know first thing Sunday morning that I would take it,” said MacDougall.

“You don’t get those calls every day. It’s a tremendous opportunity.”

Photo Credit Saint John Sea Dogs

“Sometimes when we look back at our journey, most people look back and connect the dots, the forward thinkers try to connect the dots and live their lives.”

“We look at the journey in life, it’s not always about the things we have done, it’s the things that we didn’t do, this opportunity was too hard to pass up on,” explained MacDougall.

“It’s a tremendous privilege to be asked to do this and you’re trying to make a difference for the players, the organization, the ownership, the City of Saint John and the entire province.”

From the early hours of Sunday May 22, 2022 to now, Gardiner MacDougall has been on the road. MacDougall’s road to opportunity is the extremely well-travelled scenic Route 7.

“Sometimes I’m up at twenty to five, it really all depends when practice is.”

“I like to read for about a half hour or so before I take the dogs for a walk or run for forty-five minutes or an hour and then I leave for Saint John.”

“It’s only for one month, so it’s good,” MacDougall said of the drive.

How does a well-known fiercely intense and extremely energic coach and person pass time on the same road every day?

“I’m a country fan, but I also like rock.”

“I listen 105.3, the Fox, or 92.3 New Country.”

“As far as podcasts go, I have a lot that I haven’t listened to, but I’m on the phone a lot,” admitted MacDougall.

Some nights, the veteran coach admits to being on the phone for the entire trip back to Fredericton. Cell reception isn’t the greatest through that neck of the woods, but when it comes to his message and coaching philosophy MacDougall delivers it loud and clear.

MacDougall’s coaching resume and prowess speaks for itself, but how does one go about winning over a room and gaining the trust of a team who has had a plethora of coaches and different voices over the last number of years?

“I watched the Sea Dogs play quite a few times, but I saw them play in Charlottetown in one of the last weekends of the season. I remembering telling someone there, that it was the best I’ve seen a Saint John team play in quite a while.”

Photo Credit Saint John Sea Dogs

“We are all in the coaching field and you certainly don’t want to see what’s happened.”

“It’s really unfortunate,” MacDougall said of the Dwyers dismissal.

“I guess you move forward and make the best of the situation, he was a big part of the foundation there.”

Gardiner MacDougall is all about team. He’s quick to deflect any personal credit or accolades when it comes to success.

“When I made the decision to take the job, I knew I only had one chance to make a first impression.”  

“I didn’t know a lot of the players, with the exception of the Fredericton players, but my entire goal that day was be at my very very best for that opening meeting.”

The meeting MacDougall referred to happened at 8pm on Sunday May 22.

“I think communication is a strength of mine as well as building relationships and trust. The first part of the coaching process was to build the foundation on the ice, but it’s so important to build that foundation off the ice with each and every player.”

“Stefan, Travis and Brian obviously know the team and know the players, and Trevor has been outstanding, I’ve been treated first class,” said MacDougall about the experience so far.

“The team has been tremendous, I can’t say enough about their acceptance, they have gone through the toughest adversity that they have ever experienced in their junior careers.”

From entering the playoffs with a 15-game winning streak to being upset and losing in overtime on home ice, to being off a week and coming back to a new coach and voice isn’t necessarily ideal.

“It was kind of like a double turmoil,” MacDougall said of the situation the Sea Dogs players were confronted with.

“I have to give the players full credit, they have really bought into what we are talking about, they have been really resilient, and they have definitely have had a growth mindset.”

“They have given all of their energies in trying to become better,” MacDougall said.

What does MacDougall expect on Monday when his team takes to the ice?

“You only get one chance to make a good impression in a hockey game and that’s the first minute.”

“This tournament is really about one game, and we are going to try to be at our absolute very best for the opening shift each player plays and then you build from there.”

“We have a few practices left here and we have to use every practice that we do have to full value to get ready.”

“It’s a great opportunity, there’s going to be lots of adrenal and a lot of excitement from the crowd, hopefully it’s going to be a lot of lifetime moments for everyone on our bench.”

MacDougall is holding his cards tight to the vest when it comes to any systematic changes or line combinations. “There’s been some combinations in place and we have kind of experimented and we are going to see how everything goes. We are going to try different things and we have made some adjustments.”

“It’s been training camp for me as a coach and I like I’ve said before, training camp is like a laboratory, so we are going to try different stuff out, and the players have really bought into that.”

“It’s better to make those changes in a training camp setting putting different options together, and if you decide to go to different options in a game, the players will be used to it.”

“We have tried different combos, when it comes to the lines, but we will see what sticks when it comes to Monday.”

When it comes to building a culture and character of a team, MacDougall is accustomed to recruiting all of his own players. That certainly hasn’t been the case this time around.

“It’s been a good challenge,” he said.

“The players have really bought in and implementing things, they had a good foundation of a lot of things, so it’s all about expanding and adding some joy, you know we have worked hard and our opponents are going to be battled hardened and tested, they are champions and we just had ourselves to push one another to get better.”

“It’s been a really fun challenge,” MacDougall said.

“Hockey players are hockey players, they want to compete, they want to get better, and they to have the opportunity to be at their very best so it’s up to us to provide that environment and culture for them.”

“The one bonus to this training camp and this time is that the group has gotten to know one another better as people and there’s a common unity within the group.”

“Sometimes you can only go so far, sometimes you need to be knocked down and you have to respond and build some resiliency and grit in you.”

“If you use that adversity as a steppingstone sometimes you can get to higher levels, so it’s our goal to get a whole a lot better here to be sure we are ready for that first game.”

What would it mean to hoist the Memorial Cup on June 29?

“That’s a long way down the road,” MacDougall said.

“We are really excited about our first game and it’s all about “we” here it’s all about the group and trying to make a difference.”

MacDougall and the Saint John Sea Dogs start down the road to opportunity and redemption on Monday night versus the Hamilton Bulldogs

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