'You’re fighting for them’: Inside the 2018-19 Queen’s Men’s Hockey season, part one

An eight-part series on the Gaels’ Queen’s Cup victory

In part one, fifth-year Graeme Brown describes his experience as a player during the Gaels' 2017 and 2019 Queen's Cup games.

“Ask those guys what it’s like to lose this game because you’re never going to get it back.”

Those were the words Queen’s men’s hockey head coach Brett Gibson said to his younger players before the 2018-19 OUA Championship game—better known as the Queen’s Cup.

Graeme Brown, a fifth-year member of the Gaels was in his third season with his team at the time and was known as one of “those guys.”  He’d lost that same game, a stunning defeat against York University, just two years before.

Yet, two seasons later on home ice against the Guelph Gryphons in 2019 the story would be different. In front of a packed crowd at the Memorial Centre the Gaels triumphed with a resounding 4-1 victory.

What changed?

All teams go through cycles, building and re-building as players regress, improve, or graduate. For those teams at the top—as the Gaels were and, in many respects, still are—the dividing line between the championship and runner-up was so thin as to be nearly invisible.

Over the next seven weeks, The Journal will be returning to that 2018-19 season, tracing the Gaels’ journey from heartbreaking loss to redemptive success, and ultimately to a national championship cut painfully short following the Gaels historic Queen’s Cup victory.

To bring it all back, The Journal spoke with Graeme Brown, who was there for all of it—a player in his first season in the OUA in 2016 after ending his OHL career to come to Queen's.

Now signed to a professional contract in the East Coast Hockey League, Brown sat down with The Journal to recall his childhood growing up in Gananoque, his OHL career, his entry into U Sports during the 2016-17 season, and the Gaels’ redemption two years later in 2019.

“I started out playing hockey in Gananoque with my brothers, skating on a pond in my dad’s backyard,” Brown said, reflecting on his start with the game.

For Brown, the journey towards brighter lights first meant the OHL, a league known for hosting NHL stars such as Connor McDavid, Mitch Marner, and P.K. Subban before they burst onto television screens nationwide.

“I get drafted, 16 years old, third round […] you’re sitting there on the couch, watching the draft on the TV, and then the next thing you know, my name pops up on the screen,” Brown said about his experience in the OHL draft, where he was taken 42nd overall by the Windsor Spitfires.

After a short stint with Windsor and then the Kingston Frontenacs, the intervention of Queen’s head coach Brett Gibson—a Gananoque native who had known Brown nearly his entire life—set the course for his Queen’s career and all that was to follow.

“[Gibson] just said look, you got a great opportunity here, you can start ahead with your school, and then once you’re done here, you can play pro after,” Brown said.

“I really hadn’t won anything throughout my hockey career, so coming to a team that was good was a big factor.”

That’s how Brown found himself on the 2016-17 team that won 18 games and was ranked third in a stacked OUA East.

“Our team was amazing that year […] we had guys like Dylan Anderson, Brock Edwards, some of these older guys,” Brown said.

In his first season with the Gaels, Brown had three points and collected 14 penalty minutes while playing 23 games.

“I played 5-6 defenseman with Cory Genovese, and he really helped me see the game from a different perspective, […] narrow down on what game works best for me.”

At the end of that year, however, the York Lions would beat out the Queen’s Gaels in a nail-biting Queen’s Cup, with York forward Steven Janes netting a rebound given up by Queen’s goaltender Kevin Bailie with less than five minutes left to play in the game.

“Sour."

That’s the word that Brown uses to describe that game.

After nearly 55 minutes and an entire season of work, one simple mistake was all it took to send the Gaels packing.

“It’s not the OHL where guys are moving on to the next level,” Brown recalled, describing each player’s motivation to play selflessly for their team. “You’re fighting for them.”

“It just made it that much tougher to beat these teams […] they’re fighting for that guy in their last year, same with us.”

Hence those words from Coach Gibson two years later in 2019, right before their second Queen’s Cup appearance in three years: “Ask those guys what it’s like to lose this game because you’re never going to get it back.”

Yet, in that season the team didn’t need a reminder of the stakes. On Mar. 11, 2019, in that locker room the thin dividing line was clear as day. It had been there for the past two years, including the 2017-18 campaign that ended in a playoff exit to Concordia. 

Brown knew it as well.

“[It] definitely [built] on the pressure that I needed to win the second time around I got in that game.”

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