The groundwork for the Komets' run to the Western Conference Finals may have really been laid two summers ago, when coach Ben Boudreau took a detour from a trip with his wife to the Ottawa, Ontario, area to meet with an intriguing player just out of college.
The skater was Matthew Boudens, who on Monday netted the series-clinching overtime goal, by hunkering down in front of the Wichita Thunder net and backhanding the rebound of a Blake Siebenaler shot for a 4-3 victory in a winner-take-all Game 5.
It's not just that Boudens had been the first new player signed by Boudreau as a head coach, it's what had followed – a pipeline of players to Fort Wayne from the University of New Brunswick, where Boudens won three national championships.
“To play (for the Komets) last year and then have the opportunity to bring some teammates that I'd won championships with there, and kind of know their pedigrees and what they're all about, it's been amazing,” Boudens said. “We have a tight group here and then to bring in some familiar faces from UNB, everyone knows what we're all about there, so we're really fortunate to have those guys and I'm glad they're wearing our jerseys.”
Four other former UNB players joined the Komets this season – Randy Gazzola, Matt Murphy, Oliver Cooper and Marcus McIvor – and Boudens helped recruit them all. All are on the roster heading into tonight's Game 1 of a best-of-5 series with the Allen Americans in Texas and the people of Fredericton, New Brunswick, will be paying attention.
“It's pretty special,” Boudens said.
The UNB players with the Komets combined to win 13 University Cups and it might have been more had the pandemic not scuttled the 2020 postseason.
“A big part of our program is the excellence, the performance and then the development of (pro players),” said Gardiner MacDougall, UNB's hockey coach for the last 21 seasons. “Most players that make the choice to go to university first before going to the pros, they want to come get their university degrees, but a majority of them want to play some type of pro hockey when they're finished.”
UNB has alumni at all levels of pro hockey, including the NHL, and MacDougall's program has impacted the ECHL heavily. Utah's Matthew Boucher, for example, came from UNB and won the league's Rookie of the Year award this season.
“We were really fortunate to have a number of players move on to different areas of pro hockey, but it's never that we had that many players on one particular team. I guess it's almost a unit (in Fort Wayne),” said MacDougall, whose son, Taylor, is a player agent who also helped steer players to Fort Wayne after Boudens' positive experience as a rookie.
Gardiner MacDougall believes the brand of UNB hockey that's “gritty, relentless and on the puck,” and physical, prepares his players for a smooth transition to the pros.
In the first round of the playoffs, Boudens had one goal and four points; Gazzola one goal and two points; Cooper a goal; and Murphy an assist. McIvor was out with a groin injury but could be called upon against the conference's top seed.
For Boudreau, the success with UNB players is indicative of successful recruiting that starts with properly researching players.
“Gardiner sold Boudens as exactly how he is: 'He could be a shutdown guy who can be a disturber out there or a rat, and he could score goals in big, big moments, so you can play him anywhere up and down the lineup.' And we have, including moving him to defense last year. So he's a great utility player,” Boudreau said, adding that the Komets also had to deliver on their promises to Boudens or he wouldn't have recommended Fort Wayne to others.
That included helping him get Boudens called up to the American Hockey League's Chicago Wolves for 12 games over two seasons.
“Every time we made a recruiting pitch to anybody that Boudens had played with, they'd call him and ask what he thought,” Boudreau said. “He could only speak on his experience about how he was treated in Fort Wayne and, thus, was created a pipeline for good college players.”
Komets vs. Allen
Western Conference Finals
Game 1: 8 p.m. today at Allen
Game 2: 8 p.m. Saturday at Allen
Game 3: 7:30 p.m. Monday at Memorial Coliseum
Game 4: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Coliseum*
Game 5: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Coliseum*