Sparked by the return of Michael Clarke to the lineup, the Acadia Axemen earned its first medal at the University Cup hockey championship in over two decades.
The fourth-year forward from Halifax, back in the lineup for the Sunday morning bronze medal game after serving a four-game suspension, netted two first-period goals to lead the Axemen to a 7-3 victory over the St. Francis Xavier X-Men at the Aitken Centre in Fredericton.
"We knew he was going to do it," Acadia fifth-year forward Brett Thompson said of Clarke, who was suspended after he was assessed a 10-minute match penalty and game misconduct during an Atlantic university conference semifinal game against St. F.X. on Feb. 27.
"Clarkie's been a great player for us the four years he's been here. He felt bad about missing those games and was kind of down. We had a feeling he was going to have a big game for us today. He said he was going to have a big game and he held to his word with two big goals."
In the gold medal game, the host UNB Varsity Reds, behind Cam Braes' four goals, defended their national crown with a 5-3 victory over the Saskatchewan Huskies.
Daniel Pettersson also potted a pair of goals for the Axemen in their best performance at the University Cup since losing in the final of the 1998 national championship to UNB.
It's also the team's best performance during Darren Burns' 16-year tenure as head coach. Thompson said winning a medal for his bench boss carries extra importance.
"I've been with Burnsie for five years and he's done a lot for us, especially off the ice," Thompson said. "Any time you need to go to a guy, he's there to help you out. To help pay him back with a bronze medal, it's great to get him that. Hopefully they'll get the gold for the program in the near future."
Boston Leier, Liam Maaskant and Taylor Makin also scored for Acadia, which held a 34-29 shot advantage.
Sam Studnicka, Eric Locke and Nathan Pancel answered for the X-Men, who entered the tournament as the No. 2 seed and on a seven-game playoff winning streak.
But St. F.X. was dumped 8-0 by Saskatchewan in Saturday's semifinal and didn't have much left in the tank on Sunday morning.
“It is a different experience playing at 9:30 Sunday morning,” X-Men head coach Brad Peddle said in a news release. "Twelve hours ago, we were just getting around to our post-game meal."
Acadia was ranked eighth for the eight-team tourney but knocked off No. 1 seed Alberta Golden Bears in Thursday's quarter-final before losing 3-0 to UNB in the semifinals.
Thompson wanted to close out his university career with a medal.
"Yesterday after the UNB game, we took a couple hours and kept to ourselves," Thompson said. "We then had a team meeting and talked about what a bronze medal would mean down the road for us and how important it is for the guys leaving to get one. Right after that meeting, I think everyone was recharged and ready for this game.
"Winning this medal means so much to me. We came here for the gold but when we woke up today, we wanted to get the bronze for everyone graduating and even for the guys coming back. We deserved it and it's something in the years to come when we look back on it, we can be really proud of it."
Thompson said the team was also inspired by sidelined teammate Brendan Childerley, who went into cardiac arrest during the first overtime intermission of Game 1 of the AUS semifinals against St. F.X. on Feb. 23.
The 24-year-old Childerley was resuscitated using a defibrillator and CPR and was sent to a Halifax hospital where surgery was performed to clear a blocked artery.
Despite his season being over, Childerley returned to Acadia to support the team through the rest of the AUS playoffs and in Fredericton at the University Cup.
"It was really hard on the team at the time but he's been with us the whole time and having him back has been nice," Thompson said of Childerley, the former captain of the St. Thomas Tommies.
"Every game he was the one calling out the starting lineup and the boys rallied around that. He's been great on and off the ice for us all year. He was huge part of our dressing room."
Varsity Reds 5, Huskies 3: UNB captured its sixth national title since 2007 and its first-back-to-back University Cup championship.
Braes opened the scoring 4:04 into the game, notched back-to-back goals three minutes apart in the second period and iced the victory with a power-play marker 8:50 into the third after Saskatchewan had pulled to within a goal.
Mark Simpson had the other goal for UNB and netminder Etienne Marcoux made 18 saves for the win.
U Sports player of the year Philippe Maillet had four assists in the game. The fourth-year forward finished the tournament with 10 points in three games and was named the UCup most valuable player.
Connor Gay had a goal and two assists to pace the Huskies. Jordan Fransoo and Kohl Bauml also scored for Saskatchewan.