Gardiner MacDougall was in the middle of postgame interviews when his phone rang on Saturday night.
The Saint John Sea Dogs’ temporary coach reached into his pocket and glanced briefly at the device before he turned back to the newsmen and newswomen gathered before him.
“Winnipeg Jets again,” MacDougall said with impeccable timing and an impish grin. “Sorry.”
He was teasing about the inquiries from the coach-less Jets but it is not that far-fetched that an NHL club would pursue him.
At 62, MacDougall is one of the most successful college coaches in Canadian history. He is not just good – he is John Wooden behind a hockey bench.
In 22 years, he has guided seven teams at the University of New Brunswick to CIS and U Sports championships and has finished first in the Atlantic Division 14 times. Over the past 14 seasons, the Varsity Reds are 330-45-19.
Now, after a series of improbable events, MacDougall is on the verge of capturing the Memorial Cup, the trophy that is awarded each year to the top club among the 60 in the Ontario, Quebec Major Junior and Western Hockey Leagues.
The final takes place Wednesday night when Saint John, the tournament host, meets the OHL-champion Hamilton Bulldogs at TD Station.
If the Sea Dogs win, MacDougall will join Gerard Gallant, Claude Julien, Dale Hunter, Jacques Martin, Patrick Roy and Michel Therrien on the list of notables whose teams achieved the feat while they were behind the bench.
The difference is that MacDougall has been Saint John’s coach for all of three games. He is currently on loan from the University of New Brunswick and returns to his previous post on Thursday.
The Sea Dogs brought him in a little more than a month ago after a disappointing first-round loss to the Rimouski Oceanic in the QMJHL playoffs. He was only idle at the time because UNB lost in the first game at the national championships. It was the first time that had happened in two decades.
The Sea Dogs would not have even been in the Memorial Cup had it not received an automatic invitation as the host of the event.
“[The Sea Dogs] got a second chance and I got one myself as a coach,” MacDougall said.
Saint John ended the regular season with 15 straight victories but was eliminated from the QMJHL playoffs in five games. It cost Gordie Dwyer his job.
“It is hard to make a decision like that, but we felt bringing in a coach that had big stakes experience and tournament experience was going to make the difference for us,” Trevor Georgie, Saint John’s president and general manager, said. “He has done that in spades.”
Originally from Bedeque, PEI, MacDougall is a hockey lifer. His resume also includes stints behind the bench in the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association, the Manitoba Junior Hockey League and the Saskatchewan Junior League.
“I guess I am someone who really enjoys the game and enjoys making a difference,” MacDougall said.
MacDougall had just 20 practice sessions to prepare Saint John for the Memorial Cup.
“We had to work fast,” he told the Canadian Hockey League. “Sometimes, when you win a lot you have to lose to get ahead. We got a mulligan and are trying to take advantage of it.”
Saint John beat Hamilton in the Memorial Cup opener and lost in overtime to Edmonton its next time out. It then clinched a berth in the final by rallying from 3-0 down in the first period on Saturday against Shawinigan.
William Dufour, who led the QMJHL with 56 goals in 66 games during the regular season, recorded a natural hat trick in the second and had four goals in the 5-3 victory.
“It was nice that the 20-minute break came when it did,” MacDougall said. “We were scrambling a little bit.”
The Sea Dogs scored early in the second and the tide changed as quickly as it does in the Bay of Fundy.
“We all have special ladies in our lives: our grandmothers, our mothers, our wives. I have a daughter. I have sisters,” MacDougall said Saturday. “The key to our success was the lady called Lady Mo[mentum].
“Miss Lady Mo sometimes is hard to find and you don’t know how long she is going to stay with you. We were lucky that we found her and she stayed with us for a while.”
Hamilton defeated Shawinigan 4-3 in overtime on Monday to advance to the final. Jan Mysak had the winning goal midway through the first extra period.
Saint John has one won Memorial Cup in its 17 years. Hamilton has won twice – in 1962 as the Red Wings and in 1976 as the Fincups.
“Maybe a month ago people said we were going to be the host but it was not going to last too long,” MacDougall said. “They wondered if we belonged here.
“We have hung around and now we get one more opportunity.”
A previous version of this article incorrectly spelled Gardiner MacDougall’s hometown.