Former Canadian Governor General David Johnston never played for the University Cup, but at the age of 76, he’s not ruling out the possibility of re-enrolling in a couple of courses and suiting up. “Am I disqualified? Do I have a conflict of interest?” Johnston said. “I’m ready. And with a new pair of legs I’ll be really ready.”
If the No. 1-seeded University of New Brunswick Varsity Reds manage to win their third straight Canadian university hockey title this weekend, they’ll be the first team to win the newly minted David Johnston University Cup. Naming prominent hockey trophies after former Governors General is nothing new. In fact, the Stanley Cup was donated by Lord Stanley of Preston, Canada’s sixth Governor General. Lord Byng was a huge fan of the Ottawa Senators during his tenure as Governor General from 1921-26 and his wife donated the trophy to the NHL that recognized the league’s most gentlemanly player. And the Canadian Women’s Hockey League’s championship trophy is named the Clarkson Cup, named after former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson.
But unlike the others whose names are on trophies, Johnston has a long history of playing the game. As a teenager, he counted Phil and Tony Esposito and Lou Nanne as his teammates. He captained Harvard University and had an opportunity to try out with the Boston Bruins after graduating, but chose instead to pursue his law degree at the University of Cambridge. He has been affiliated in one way or another with five Canadian universities during his career, so his passion for the game at this level runs very deep.
“It’s very exciting, but it’s especially exciting for me to connect it to the office of the Governor General,” Johnston said. “We’ve had quite a connection with sport…so it’s wonderful to see that connection continue.”
Johnston is also passionate about another issue facing the game and that is concussion prevention. He has been an outspoken critic of the NHL for its stance on head injuries and is steadfast in his feeling that the game has to do more to prevent them. Johnston himself had three concussions in the space of five months as a teenager – two from football and one from hockey – and was told by his family doctor he wouldn’t be able to play hockey anymore without wearing a helmet – something that was seen as a sign of weakness in the 1950s. He still plays the game, skates regularly on the Rideau Canal and at the refurbished rink at Rideau Hall and has grandchildren playing the game. And he doesn’t like what he sees.
“I’m actually quite surprised (the NHL) has been slow to face up to it,” Johnston said. “The other major sports in North America have. I want my 14 grandchildren to play hockey the way my five daughters did. One doesn’t take contact out of hockey, but we can take steps to make it a safer game and eliminating fighting is one of those ways. Headshots of any kind can be severely penalized. You don’t have to finish a check by running a person into the boards when they don’t have the puck. Those are sensible rules.”
As for the tournament itself, it gets underway Thursday night with the Brock Badgers playing the St. Francis Xavier X-Men and New Brunswick taking on the Concordia Stingers. The Alberta Golden Bears play the Acadia Axemen and the McGill Redmen (Mike Babcock’s alma mater) play the Saskatchewan Huskies Friday. The semifinals go Saturday and the bronze medal game and championship game are slated for Sunday.
New Brunswick is trying to become just the third school in history to win three straight national championships and the first to do it since Alberta from 1978 through 1980. And their chances look pretty good. They’ll be playing on home ice and they come into the tournament as the top-seeded team on the strength of a 24-2-4 record and an Atlantic University Sport championship. This season was supposed to be a rebuilding one for the Reds, who lost nine players to graduation, but collected a point in each of their first 18 games. Three players finished in the league’s top-10 scoring, including former Saginaw Spirit center Kris Bennett, who was named rookie of the year.
New Brunswick and Alberta have won 11 of the past 13 national championships and enter the tournament as the top two seeds.