Jefferson Hagen / MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – A year after dramatically erasing a 12-year championship drought, the MacEwan Griffins have climbed to the top of the mountain again.
With a wild celebration and yard sale of gear all over the NAIT Arena ice, the Griffins celebrated their second-straight Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference championship with a 4-1 win over the NAIT Ooks on Sunday night.
It was like déjà vu as the No. 2-seeded Griffins again had too much for No. 1 NAIT when it mattered the most, beating the Ooks in three games for a second-consecutive year. Amazingly, the series followed the same script – the road team won all three contests – and it ended again on NAIT's home ice.
"It's unbelievable," said MacEwan captain Ryan Benn, who will graduate with back-to-back championships. "I owe it all to these guys. Just the character. That's how we won. NAIT – man to man, they're talented. They're probably more talented than us. We know that. But our character and the love for one another is so strong.
"Everybody wanted to do it for the guy next to him. It sounds cliché, but that's how you win championships is character and heart. Nobody in this room cares who gets the credit. It's all about the collective and the common goal. We've always been like that. That's the culture here."
That was evident on Sunday when the Griffins' grit, determination and heart was on display as they allowed the Ooks minimal time and space.
Head coach Michael Ringrose, who took the torch in his first ACAC coaching season from 2017 championship bench boss Bram Stephen, had no doubt his team would leave everything they had on the ice, win or lose.
"It's funny," he explained. "My wife left this morning. She went out east and she asked me how I felt. The quote I gave her was that I didn't know if we were going to win or lose the game.
"But the character we had in there, I knew the guys were going to leave it all out there. That's what we did tonight and it was good enough tonight to get the job done."
The championship comes 10 days after the MacEwan women's hockey team captured their own ACAC title – making it the second-straight year the Griffins hockey teams won both titles. It's also the first time in ACAC hockey history that one school has taken the men's and women's championships in back-to-back years.
The Griffins won because of their character, selfless nature and the heart of a champion (Len Joudrey photo).
Goaltender Marc-Olivier Daigle, who stopped 112 of 119 shots in the series, and came up gigantic under enormous pressure, was named ACAC playoff MVP.
As great as he was all series, he saved his best work for Game 3 on Sunday. He flat-out robbed Francis Menard on a rebound in the second period and then shut down what would have been an incredible tic-tac-toe passing play between Jarid Hauptman and Menard in front with 4:26 left by intercepting the pass with his glove.
"He was exceptional – our backbone and our difference-maker," said Ringrose. "He came up with some huge saves in the third period. I don't know if I've seen two better saves than that back-door play and that save across the crease in the second."
The MVP award, though, was secondary to the team celebrations, said Daigle.
"It's a nice achievement, but being champions of the league is the best," he said. "I could not have won that MVP without the group of guys we had today."
Ryan Baskerville, who plays a gritty power game in a Ryan Smyth mold, may have been the second-best player on the ice on Sunday. He scored the Griffins' first two goals - the first coming in the opening frame when he kept it on a 2-on-1 and snapped it over NAIT goalie Nathan Park's glove. The second came late in the middle frame when Brett Njaa made an inspired seam pass to Stefan Danielson, whose shot tipped off Park and was sitting like a saucer in the blue paint. Baskerville charged in and stabbed it across the line.
"It just stopped there and I was lucky to bat it in," he said.
"It means so much," he added of winning a second-straight title. "When I got here four years ago, a championship was a bit of a pipe dream. Now to have two, it's surreal. I'm excited to celebrate with the guys. We're a family. We deserve it."
Ryan Baskerville celebrates after scoring the game-winning goal on NAIT goalie Nathan Park in the second period (Len Joudrey photo).
NAIT's only goal of the contest came in the second period when Jordan Davies blew it past Daigle on the blocker side. The Ooks outshot the Griffins 16-6 in the middle frame, but the late goal by Baskerville to restore a 2-1 MacEwan lead was a back-breaker for the home team.
The Griffins controlled the contest from there and at 10:32 of the third period got their insurance marker. Rookie Brett Smythe pounced on a loose puck out of a scramble at the side of the net and sent it across the line.
Backup goaltender Christopher Wray, who factored into the Game 3 story last year by playing the final half of the third period and overtime, was on the bench this time. The win is no less sweet, though, as the decorated leader and all-time saves leader in the program graduates as a two-time champ.
"It's a crazy program," he said. "It's been built so well by the guys who've come through. MacEwan is becoming something bigger than it ever was. It's awesome to be able to see and be a part of. It's exciting. There's a lot of really good people the whole way through. It's fun to be a part of."
Graduating senior Chris Wray is ecstatic in hoisting the hardware on Sunday (Len Joudrey photo).
And now, it's onto the celebration portion. It could last for weeks.
"I think back to before the game," said Ringrose. "My message to them was simple: enjoy the moment. You don't' get an opportunity to play in games like this very often and I said tomorrow morning when you wake up, you're going to wake up and you're going to either have won the game or lost the game.
"What you want is to be able to look in the mirror and say you had no regrets. Every single guy to a man tonight can wake up and do that tomorrow."