By CLAUDE SCILLEY
For one team, the game represents something very tangible: Two vital points for a closely bunched race for playoff seeding.
For the other side, its invitation to the post-season ball long ago dispatched with regrets, the reward is much more esoteric. Victory will be but a small step among the many required to establish long-term credibility.
Whether real or theoretical, though, make no mistake about the importance of Thursday’s Ontario University Athletics hockey match to both participants. When the Queen’s Golden Gaels and Royal Military College Paladins put on their retro jerseys to renew hockey’s oldest rivalry at the Rogers K-Rock Centre, it will be a big deal.
Whether the motivation to capture the Carr-Harris Cup is positive (in the case of RMC, a chance to grab a little respect by yanking a Jenga block from under Queen’s bid to reach a favourable playoff spot) or negative (Queen’s wish to avoid squandering two points to a team 20 points in arrears in the standings) or totally benign—a chance to display their talents in front of a crowd that will likely surpass the collective attendance of both teams for the entire season—nobody wants to leave this one having given less than his best.
Last year, a record crowd of 3,295 attended the annual Carr-Harris Cup game, the 29th of a series that was begun to commemorate the centennial of the first Queen’s-RMC game, played a long icing shot away from the site of Thursday’s game, on the harbour ice in 1886.
“Any time you get to play RMC … there is always extra buzz to the game,” Queen's coach Brett Gibson told a news conference Tuesday. Gibson’s team won last year’s game, 5-1, but the Gaels were edged 2-1 two years ago in a game where they outshot the winners 53-24.
It was, without a doubt, the highlight of a dismal season for the Paladins, one they ended with a 3-25 record, and perhaps the most frustrating evening of the season for Gibson, the latest in a long line of Queen’s coaches who has muttered under his breath about RMC’s propensity, even in lean years, to muster something extra for games with Queen’s, particularly in the Carr-Harris showcase.
Nonetheless, Gibson also sees the significance of the game in a broader perspective. Unquestionably, university hockey is the most under-appreciated form of the game in town—to the point where its proponents are getting tired of having to say so.
It’s a much different game than the major junior variety, to be sure, but no less entertaining. But for the very elite juniors, the skill levels are comparable, and what the collegians may lack in individual skill, they make up for with their maturity, smarts and collective play.
“It's an opportunity for us to promote our sport,” Gibson said, “to be able to … showcase the athletes that both schools have.”
The game has grown from fairly modest beginnings, when it was little more than a ceremonial faceoff and a trophy presentation from being an ordinary hockey game. No regular season game in Canada drew more fans last year—and in the playoffs, only the last two New Brunswick games at the University Cup tournament in Halifax had bigger crowds.
Tonight’s game, with student tickets already sold out, promises to be no less well attended.
“I don't think we appreciated, at the time, the significance of the event, long term,” said Queen's alumnus Graham Sirman, now a lawyer in Kingston and a member of the Golden Gaels in that first Carr-Harris game.
“It is really pleasing to see the game evolve to the point where 3,300 people are coming to the game.”
RMC won the inaugural game, 8-3, at the Constantine Arena.
“Without a doubt, Queen's and RMC, whenever they played each other, really got up for that game,” recalled Andre Labrie, superintendent of human resources with the Limestone District School Board, and a member of that winning RMC team.
“The traditional (element) was a special thing to be a part of.”
RMC coach Richard Lim played in five Carr-Harris Cup games for the Paladins. He only won one of them—the first, 3-2 in a shootout, in 2007—but he recalled those games at Tuesday’s news conference as “a ton of fun.”
“There were a lot of exciting games.”
Queen’s, 14-7-1, has won three of its last four games. Led by goaltender Kevin Bailie, whose goals-against average (1.99) and save percentage (.946) are both the best in the land, the Gaels are characterized by a fast-paced game and unhappy habit of losing hockey games by one goal. All eight of the Gaels’ defeats have been by a solitary goal, but for the three where an opponent scored into an empty net to win by two.
RMC, 3-17-3, though last in the East division, has won two of its last four games, having lost twice by allowing two third-period goals in games where the Paladins were tied after 40 minutes. RMC would appear to be going in the right direction: They allowed 30 goals in their first four games this year, but only eight in their last four conference games, all played on the road.
The cadets are 0-1 at the K-Rock Centre this year, having dropped a 4-3 decision to the U.S. Military Academy last month, in a highly entertaining game in which RMC twice overcame two-goal deficits to tie, only to succumb—again—to an unanswered third-period goal.
The historic game doesn’t excuse either team from the rigors of the OUA stretch drive. On Friday night, RMC will host third-ranked Trois-Rivieres, before the Concordia Stingers visit the Constantine Sunday afternoon at 4 o’clock. The Gaels will hit the road, for games Saturday night at Waterloo and Sunday night at Wilfrid Laurier.