Queen's Gaels make it to Fredericton for University Cup with just hours to spare

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Tired and stiff after a blast of winter weather forced major changes to their travel plans, the Queen’s Gaels finally rolled into Fredericton on Thursday afternoon just hours before their opening game at the Canadian men’s university hockey championship.

The start time of their quarter-final against the host University of New Brunswick Varsity Reds was pushed back an hour to 8 p.m. local time. The decision left Queen’s officials unhappy and players — some of whom had to share beds or sleep on cots — rather annoyed.

“Sports is the greatest equalizer,” said head coach Brett Gibson. “You win the game tonight, they’ll probably make a Disney movie about it.”

In Thursday’s early game, the Acadia Axemen shocked the top-ranked Alberta Golden Bears 4-1. Robert Steeves made 34 saves and Boston Leier scored the winning goal for Acadia as Alberta was quickly denied a chance at a 16th national title.

“It was more of a team game than a goaltender battle,” Steeves said. “The team battled hard all night long, and they let me see everything so I could make the saves.”

The Gaels originally planned to travel from Kingston to Toronto on Tuesday morning for a flight to New Brunswick. When the flight was cancelled due to a winter storm that hammered parts of Eastern Canada, the team decided to charter a bus instead.

The players left Kingston that day and stopped for the night in a small town outside of Quebec City.

“At that point the storm was really starting to pick up,” said Queen’s forward Alex Stothart. “We just found whatever hotel we could. I think we stopped just in time because we got enough rooms for everybody, even if it was a little cosy.”

The players woke up at 6 a.m., had a quick breakfast and got back on the road.

“We definitely got pretty comfortable with each other,” Stothart said. “Some last-minute team bonding before our big game. We had fun with it though. It’s a little annoying but we made sure to keep our spirits up.”

After less than 100 kilometres on the road, their trip was stalled due to a highway closure. Whiteouts and poor road conditions prevented travel eastbound.

The team bus pulled into a mall near the highway so the players — whose luggage and equipment had been sent to Fredericton a few days earlier — could pick up toothbrushes, personal effects and clean clothes.

“We just sort of hung out and played cards in the food court,” Stothart said.

With the highway closed and no idea when it might re-open, the team found a local hotel late in the afternoon so they could get a decent meal and some rest.

Meanwhile, Jeff Downie, the school’s acting executive director of athletics and recreation, was busy filing a request with University Cup organizers and U Sports — the governing body of Canadian university sport — to have the game postponed to Friday.

He received word early Thursday morning that his appeal was denied.

“Nobody is to blame here, it was the weather. It was a big storm,” Downie said. “Quebec was essentially shut down over the last couple days. That’s nobody’s fault. We’re just trying to make the best decision for our athletes at this point.”

Later Thursday, U Sports announced the game would start an hour later than originally scheduled. Dick White, a delegate for U Sports, said there were several factors to consider with a tournament format that is quite compact.

“We recognize entirely this is not ideal for Queen’s,” White said. “On the other hand there are seven other teams in this tournament and we would have put them in a very negative position as well as the position of the organizing committee. So I fully concede that this is not preferable for Queen’s.

“It’s not something that we wanted, but unfortunately the weather dictated a very difficult decision for us.”

Downie said he knows it can be challenging for local organizers to make late changes when plans have been made and tickets have been sold. But he still felt a postponement to Friday was a reasonable request.

“These guys need their appropriate rest, their appropriate meals, they need their prep time on the ice … they’re not going to step foot on that ice until the game tonight,” he said. “That, from our perspective, is just unacceptable.”

The players, meanwhile, tried to make the best of a tough situation. Since they missed the U Sports hockey awards banquet Wednesday night, the Gaels set up their own ceremony in their hotel lobby.

Small trophies were purchased at the mall’s dollar store and awards were handed out for “longest nap,” “most trips to the bathroom,” “noisiest snorer,” and “most inches of Subway sandwiches eaten.”

“We gave the MVP to our bus driver (David Bath) because he was pretty great all week,” Stothart said.

After another early wakeup, the weather co-operated and players arrived early Thursday afternoon. Gibson addressed the team and felt confident they would be ready to play despite the travel hurdles.

“If you would have told us in September that we’d have an opportunity to play for a national championship, we would have ran here,” Gibson said.

In the early game, Kyle Farrell, Stephen Harper and Daniel Pettersson, into an empty net, also scored for the Axemen, who are chasing their third national title and first since 1996.

Taylor Cooper scored and Brendan Burke made 22 saves for Alberta.

“We don’t offer any excuses,” said Alberta coach Serge Lajoie, whose team lost for the second straight year in the national quarter-finals. “We were loose, we had lots of composure. And we can’t let one game define our whole season.

“Yes, I am disappointed, but we have to let the dust settle, let the group compose themselves, and look ahead.”

Two quarter-final games were scheduled for Friday at the Aitken University Centre.

The McGill Redmen also had to endure some travel delays but weren’t scheduled to play their quarter-final until Friday night.

The semifinals were set for Saturday and the medal games were scheduled for Sunday.

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Follow @GregoryStrongCP on Twitter.

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