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U Sports men’s hockey trophy named after former Governor-General David Johnston

Governor General David Johnston waves as he leaves following a ceremonial tree planting to commemorate the end of his mandate at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

When he was a teenager growing up in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., David Johnston could count the likes of Tony and Phil Esposito, two future NHL stars, as teammates on his minor hockey league team.

While attending Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., Johnston continued to pursue hockey as a slightly built defenceman for the Crimson, where he became captain of the Ivy League outfit and was twice selected as an All-American.

And when Johnston went on to become the vice-chancellor at Montreal's McGill University in 1979, he would often skate with the women's hockey team just to keep in shape.

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"I first went out to practice with university's men's team … and they were brutal," Johnston recalled, with good humour. "I quickly decided this was not a very good place to be because they'd knock me down. So then I went to the women's practices, and God bless those lovely girls.

"Whenever I'd fall down, which was fairly frequently, they'd stop the play and pick me up."

In honour of his long association with the game, U Sports, the national governing body of university sport in Canada, has decided to rename the trophy awarded annually to the men's national hockey champion to the David Johnston University Cup after the former Canadian governor-general.

The trophy, first handed out in 1963, had simply been known as the University Cup.

The announcement was made Tuesday afternoon by U Sports at a news conference in downtown Toronto. The event was attended by Johnston, whose seven-year tenure as governor-general ended in 2017, and hosted by Hockey Night in Canada host Ron MacLean.

The 76-year-old Johnston said the was "thrilled, honoured, humbled" to have a trophy named after him. "Of course, I love hockey, so it's quite wonderful to be associated with that great game."

In his remarks at the news conference, Johnston raised the subject of concussions and how imperative it is on the NHL to do all it can to protect the health and welfare of players who are taking up the game.

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The NHL has come under criticism for its response to concussions in the game and is facing a lawsuit from former players who are contending the league did not do enough to protect their safety.

"I'm actually quite surprised that they [the NHL] have been slow to face up to it," Johnston said afterwards during an interview.

The trophy's name change will go into effect immediately. The newly named hardware will be presented for the first time this coming weekend when the 2018 U Sports national men's hockey championship is played on the campus of the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton.

The two-time defending champion UNB Varsity Reds are favoured heading into the eight-team tournament. The champion of Atlantic University Sport will be seeking its third-straight national crown, something that has not been accomplished in U Sports since 1980 when the Alberta Golden Bears managed the feat.

The event begins Thursday and will conclude Sunday with the gold-medal game at the Aitken University Centre.

The women's hockey championship will also be played this weekend on the campus of Western University in London, Ont., where the Manitoba Bisons will enter as favourites.

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Graham Brown, the chief executive officer of U Sports, said he hopes the renaming of the men's national championship trophy helps garner more recognition for a level of hockey that is often overlooked in a crowded Canadian sports marketplace.

"It is a secret because people do not understand how good the hockey players are," Brown said, speaking specifically about the men's game. "They don't understand that these kids were already just under the level to play pro as 18, 19 and 20 year olds. They don't realize that 90 per cent of U Sports men's hockey players are coming off CHL hockey careers and spent four or five years playing in front of thousands of people in CHL arenas."

Back in December, a team of U Sports all-stars won both their exhibition games against a Canadian team that was preparing for the world junior hockey championship, where it claimed gold.

Brown said that the NHL will have an amateur scout on hand in Fredericton over the weekend to check out the play at the men's tournament.

Down the road, Brown said he is trying arrange a game that would feature the top graduating U Sports hockey players. That game would mimic what the CHL does each year with its CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game, which features the best draft-eligible players. Brown said that, ideally, the game would be played against teams chosen from the ranks of graduating NCAA players. Failing that, the game would just be for U Sports skaters split into two squads.

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