Two decades ago, MacEwan last met Mount Royal in playoffs, sweeping them on the way to first championship

The 2003-04 Griffins men's hockey team was the last one to face Mount Royal in a playoff series, sweeping them in the ACAC semifinal before winning the program's first championship.
The 2003-04 Griffins men's hockey team was the last one to face Mount Royal in a playoff series, sweeping them in the ACAC semifinal before winning the program's first championship.

Jefferson Hagen
MacEwan Athletics

EDMONTON – Something wasn't quite right for Gordon Bell and the Griffins men's hockey team as they shook off the rust from a first-round bye and were hemmed in and losing to the Mount Royal Cougars.

It wasn't supposed to go that way after the Griffins men's hockey team lapped the field, finishing atop the 2003-04 Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference standings with a 20-4-2-2 record – the best mark in program history.

But the plucky Cougars, who were 20 points behind them in the standings, had the lead early in Game 1 of their best-of-five semifinal series.

"We were waiting for them, and we were a little bit rusty to start," said Bell, who was captain of the 2003-04 Griffins. "They kind of got up on us in the first period. I don't know if it was 1-0 or 2-1 or something like that. We kind of got on the guys in the first intermission that we were so much better than this. 

"In the second period, we came out and kind of showed them who we were. And we didn't really look back from there. We ended up sweeping that series."

It was a launchpad to an unforgettable moment as the Griffins next swept NAIT in three straight games to claim the first of four ACAC Championships for the program.

"We had a real special group that year," said Bell, who led the Griffins in scoring with 42 points in 27 games  second in the ACAC. "That first game was super frustrating, but I think it helped us get our mind right, wake us up right away and not take it for granted. After that first period, we didn't even look back.

"The next five-and-a-half games, they pretty much all went our way."

It's hard to believe, but that three-game sweep over Mount Royal 20 years ago was the last time the Griffins and Cougars met in a men's hockey playoff series (and the only time, for that matter). 

MRU went to Canada West in 2012 and MacEwan joined the conference in 2021.

They will renew acquaintances this weekend in the opening round of the Canada West playoffs as Mount Royal hosts MacEwan on Friday (7 p.m.), Saturday (7 p.m.) and Sunday (7 p.m., if necessary, all at Flames Community Arenas, Canada West TV).

Kole Gable puts pressure on the Mount Royal defence during a November meeting between the teams. They open a best-of-three quarter-final playoff series on Friday - 20 years after the last post-season meeting between the schools (Jefferson Hagen photo).

The shoe is on the other foot this time as the No. 3-seeded Cougars are the favourites, finishing 23 points ahead of the No. 6 Griffins.

Many of the alumni from a previous era of Griffins hockey will cheer on the team this weekend from wherever they are as the program aims to continue in the footsteps of excellence created since it began in 1998. 

Bell now lives in Dallas, Tex. where he coaches two girls teams, settling there after a seven-year professional career in the Central Hockey League split between Oklahoma City, Amarillo and Tulsa.

The Westlock, Alta. native returns to his hometown every summer to run a hockey camp called Bellz Edge Elite Hockey Camp.

"We're in our 12th year," he said. "This year we're expecting about 236 kids for the week. It's crazy. It's blown up the last two or three years. It's really neat what's going on there."

Bell, who also played in the U SPORTS precursor CIS with Saint Mary's University after two years at MacEwan, looks back fondly on his time with the Griffins. 

He notes the building blocks to MacEwan's 2004 championship season began in 2002-03 when they were beaten in a final series by Concordia that went the distance.

"The year before, we had lost in the final – we lost 2-1 in Game 5, the deciding game," he said. "It kind of left a little bit of a sour taste in your mouth. So, I didn't even take an off-season that summer. I was just so determined to get back there and win that thing."

Under the guidance of assistant coach Barry Butt, who has trained Olympic gold medalists and NHL players, and founded Sherwood Park-based Premier Strength Sport Performance, Bell and his teammates entered the 2003-04 ACAC season in the best shape of their lives.

"At that time, I was the captain of the team, so I was just trying to drag as many people into the fight, into my mindset of how close we were and how these chances are few and far between when there's a chance to win a championship," said Bell. "I didn't want the guys to take it for granted and everyone just bought in. 

"We had such a special team. Off the ice, we were in the gym together all the time, we were having fun together after. And on the ice, all the chemistry, all the fight we had for each other was already there with how close we were off the ice. It was certainly losing the year before that just motivated our group."

The Griffins swept both Mount Royal and NAIT, winning six-straight games to capture the 2004 ACAC Championship (Photo courtesy of Gordon Bell).

Besides Bell, they had multiple impact players on the roster.

Joel Becker tallied 17 times from the blueline.

Scott Stewart scored 21 goals in 28 games.

Matt Levicki had 31 points in 28 games.

Darrell Goretzki nearly had a point per game average as a rookie.

Defenceman Mark Woywitka – brother of former NHLer Jeff – was a rock on the blueline, using his RBC Cup and Viking Cup experience.

Goaltenders Clinton Chalmers and B.J. Boxma, who split duties fairly evenly, both had junior championships on their resume – the former an AJHL champion with the Drayton Valley Thunder and the latter a WHL champion with the Kootenay Ice. Both dabbled in U SPORTS (CIS) and the pro ranks after their MacEwan careers.

Many others made a big difference, too.

"I don't think I've played on a deeper team than that group there in any league I've ever played in," said Bell. "Obviously, that's a big reason why we ended up winning, and winning the way we did – winning six straight. It was a lot of fun. I'll never forget that group."

A specific memory that stands out was after the crowds had dispersed from the arena, Bell savoured a quiet moment with just himself and the trophy.

"I can remember leaving the rink and I took the trophy with me and had about 45 minutes with the trophy by myself before I ended up going into the bar and meeting the guys for a little celebration," he said. "It was just a lot of work that I had put in to get to that point. 

"It was just neat to sit back and reflect and just have my time with the trophy."

The Griffins would go on to win that trophy three more times when they finished a 24-year ACAC run as a dynasty – champions in 2016-17, 2017-18 and 2018-19.

Now, the legacy of excellence continues at the U SPORTS level as the Griffins hunt for glory after making the Canada West playoffs for the first time.

"Make sure you tell those guys good luck from me and from everybody on that first team that won it," said Bell. "Carry on that tradition, go have some fun."