“Okay, here we go, we can do this and come back.”
That’s what Queen’s forward Matt Needham told himself during the quarterfinals of the 2018-19 Men’s Hockey National Championship held in Lethbridge, Alta.
Only this time, he wasn’t hoping for the Gaels to come from behind and pull off a stunning victory to capture another piece of hardware. Rather, he was hoping for the St. Francis Xavier X-Men—his team at the time—to successfully erase a three-goal deficit to eliminate Queen’s from the tournament.
To capture the final moments of that 2018-19 season after the Queen’s Cup victory, The Journal spoke to Needham about his hockey career and his memories from that season.
Needham’s introduction to hockey started with an NHL dynasty: his father and the Pittsburgh Penguins of the 1990s.
“My dad had a pretty good career: he played in Kamloops, […] won a Stanley Cup their second year, [and went] back-to-back with Mario [Lemieux] and [Jaromir] Jagr,” Needham said.
“He got a stick in my hand about as early as I could walk.”
Following in his father’s footsteps, Needham joined the Kamloops Blazers of the WHL before traveling across the country to attend St. Francis Xavier for his undergrad in 2016.
“I’d been to Halifax once before for the Canada Winter Games […] I really fell in love with the school, it’s obviously a great hockey program […] It’s a beautiful campus, small, […] it felt comfortable going there,” Needham recalled.
“The East Coast, the people are fantastic out there, I have nothing but nice things to say about my four years.”
As comfortable as the transition might have been off the ice, preparing for the U Sports style of play on it was a different story.
“Growing up, you obviously want to play pro hockey, you want an NHL contract. [Often]that doesn’t happen, and then it seems like U Sports is a step down,” Needham confessed.
“It really isn’t. That kind of shocked me a little bit my first year […] You go from being a topline guy to fitting into a little lighter role, more penalty kills, [a] defensive role.”
As for the reputation of his new team, Needham was not concerned. The X-Men’s record said as much, especially
“It seemed like we’d been very good up through that point […] We came in fourth the year before, we were a very strong team […] We knew we had a shot,” Needham said.
“It’s tough when you get into those tournaments with the one-game elimination. Anything can happen with one game. Not only do you have to be a good team, but you have to get lucky at the right time.”
In order to chart a path to the finals, though, St. Francis Xavier first had to get through the Gaels, a team whose season had followed a similar trajectory and whose program had improved substantially over the years prior.
“I knew they were a great hockey program,” Needham said.
“I knew [Spencer] Abraham was a big focal point for us. He’s a top tier defenceman, it didn’t matter where or what he was doing, he was a guy you had to keep an eye on.”
“They came out, got off to a great start […] They got on top of us, kind of caught us off guard a little bit,” Needham recalled about the beginning of the game.
“We just came back into the room, tried to re-focus, get back to how we were playing.”
But for Needham, the seeds were already planted for a comeback as X-Men forward Holden Cook scored on the power-play to cut into the Gaels’ lead.
“It was a big goal for us, and just to get that little bit of a spark and then sit down, I remember, in the dressing room between periods, between the first and second and everyone’s thinking, ‘Oh god, we’re in trouble here, we got to get going’,” Needham said.
From there, St. Francis scored once more on the power-play mid-way through the second before adding another three in the third period to complete the comeback.
“We just kind of settled in, started playing our game, got a couple power plays […] Once we kind of got one or two it was like ‘okay, here we go, we can do this and come back’,” Needham recalled.
Final score: 5-3, St. FX.
After the final horn sounded, Queen’s returned home and for the next three seasons, drifted near the top of the OUA, and lost in the playoffs to the UQTR Patriotes before the pandemic erased the 2020-2021 season.
This year, the Gaels’ season ended with a heartbreaking loss to the McGill Red Birds in the first round, closing the chapter on another promising season.
For now, the Gaels are still waiting to reach those same heights as before. But once they get there—and they will—the result will be clear. It’s something that this team learned that night in 2019.
You don’t lose the same game twice.
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