For the University of Montreal Carabins and the University of British Columbia (UBC) Thunderbirds, all roads lead to Richardson Stadium on the campus of Queen’s University, where the two teams will face off in the 58th edition of the Vanier Cup at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023.
Both teams earned their spot in the U Sports men’s football national championship game with decisive wins this past weekend in their respective national semifinals.
First up was the Uteck Bowl in Montreal, where the hometown Carabins downed the Ontario champions, the Western University Mustangs, 29-3. It was Western’s first loss of the season and allowed Montreal its fourth Vanier Cup appearance in 10 years.
Since the team’s reinstatement in 2002 after an over 30-year hiatus — a reinstatement that coincided with the rebirth of intercollegiate football in Quebec in the early 2000s — the Carabins have consistently been among the top teams in Canada. Led by quarterback Jonathan Senecal, Quebec’s Most Outstanding Player for 2023, Montreal is looking to secure only its second Vanier Cup title this Saturday; its first came in 2014 against McMaster.
Meanwhile, the UBC Thunderbirds booked their ticket to Kingston with a 47-17 win over the St. Francis Xavier University X-Men in the Mitchell Bowl, securing the west coast school its seventh national championship appearance. It’s been several years since UBC played in the Vanier Cup; the most recent was in 2015 in Quebec City, where the Thunderbirds took home their fourth national title in program history with a narrow 26-23 victory over Montreal.
On paper, UBC and Montreal are evenly matched heading into this weekend’s contest, with both schools looking to make noise in the rematch of that 2015 championship final. Odds makers are likely to give the advantage to Montreal, as the Carabins have been near the top of the national rankings all season. The most recent top 10 list issued by U Sports had Montreal placed second in Canada, while UBC was seventh.
While no Kingston-born players are suiting up for either team this weekend, UBC’s coaching staff features two members of the 2009 Vanier Cup-winning Queen’s Gaels squad. Pat Tracey, UBC’s offensive coordinator, spent 10 seasons with the Gaels from 2000 to 2009, holding various coaching positions including defensive coordinator, special teams coach, and recruiting coordinator. In 2009, Tracey was an assistant coach when the Gaels beat the University of Calgary Dinos 33-31 in Quebec City to win the 45th Vanier Cup.
Another 2009 Queen’s Gaels alumnus who now calls UBC home is Shomari Williams, a defensive standout for Queen’s who was named the Most Outstanding Player at the 2009 Mitchell Bowl before helping the Gaels win the Vanier Cup the following weekend. Since 2019, Williams has served as a recruiting coordinator and defensive line coach for the Thunderbirds.
Queen’s Athletics and Recreation ready to welcome the rest of Canada
While the focus on Saturday will be on the field as UBC and Montreal battle for the title, officials at Queen’s University are hoping the school impresses those in the stands and watching on television, as Richardson Stadium gets set for its moment in the spotlight. The road to hosting the Vanier Cup has been a long one for staff with Queen’s Athletics and Recreation (A&R) after it was announced this past spring that the school would host the 2023 and 2024 Vanier Cup games.
After months of hard work and preparation, the school is ready to welcome what should be a capacity crowd come Saturday afternoon, as thousands of fans, players, coaches, officials, staff, and others descend on the Limestone City. According to Chris Lund with Queen’s A&R, officials are working hard to put the finishing touches on the event before Saturday’s kickoff.
“This process obviously [started] pretty much the day after we got awarded the bid, in terms of being able to confirm hotels, partners, all sorts of things that make this week possible,” said Lund.
By Wednesday night, both teams will have arrived in Kingston to begin practices ahead of Saturday’s national championship.
Lund added, “[Once the teams arrive,] it’s a mix of different things. Teams will start practicing at Richardson Stadium either the day they arrive or the day after, depending on the exact time. They’ll have meetings throughout each day, and then our more public events start later in the week.”
On Thursday, coaches and players will take part in pregame press conferences, with media from around the country seeking quotes ahead of this weekend’s big game.
Meanwhile, Thursday night is the All-Canadian Banquet, where football players from around U Sports are celebrated at the annual national awards reception.
“[The banquet] will include not just the two competing teams, but also… All-Canadians or major awards winners from the other 25 U Sports football schools, Queen’s included,” Lund noted.
On Friday, the general public will have an opportunity to take part in some additional events in support of the Vanier Cup, including the Canadian Collegiate Women’s Flag Football (CCWF) Showcase. Lund explained, “It’s a companion event, which will feature eight teams from around Ontario and Quebec competing in women’s football, with the final culminating at Richardson Stadium at 5:30 p.m. on Friday.” The CCWF Showcase starts at 10 a.m. on Thursday at Miklas-McCarney Field just north of Richardson Stadium. Admission is free.
Later Friday evening, attention will shift to downtown Kingston as the Vanier Cup Fan Fest invades Springer Market Square.
“That includes a number of different vendors from around Kingston… setting up shop in Market Square. [There will be] live music performances, [and we’ll be] celebrating the champions of the women’s football showcase,” Lund said.
The Vanier Cup Fan Fest will feature representatives from the competing teams, as well as an opportunity for a high school football team to win a set of uniforms from T. Litzen Sports, the official Nike Team uniform provider of the Queen’s Gaels. The event gets underway at 6 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 24, 2023.
On game day, those with young fans are invited to participate in Football Canada First Down ‘Try Football’ Day, which takes place at Miklas-McCarney Field starting at 9:30 a.m. Lund explained, “Kids aged four to 12 can come out and learn some football basics on passing, kicking, that type of thing. And they’ll have a chance to meet some student athletes from Queen’s and some of the women’s football participants from the day before.” There will also be food trucks on hand near the stadium, keeping attendees fed throughout the morning.
Queen’s University is no stranger to hosting major championship events. In recent years the school has hosted the 2021 Yates Cup, the 2021 U Sports Women’s Rugby Championship, and the 2022 U Sports Women’s Basketball Championship. And earlier this month, Queen’s welcomed the best female soccer players from around the country for the 2023 U Sports Women’s Soccer Championship.
According to Lund, those events showed officials what to expect when hosting a major event like the Vanier Cup. “As a department, we are very well equipped now to handle this type of event. By March of 2024, we’ll have hosted six national championships in the previous three years, with a second Vanier Cup to come in November . We have a tremendously hard-working staff that cares very much about delivering a good experience for fans, for student athletes, for coaches,” he said.
Lund added that while the Vanier Cup is the most significant the school has hosted, at least in terms of its public profile, it is actually less of a commitment than the week-long championship tournaments the school has hosted in the past. “From a logistical standpoint… it’s actually more straightforward [than] the women’s soccer championship or women’s rugby, [where] you’re hosting eight teams from all across the country… You’re dealing with 11 or 12 games, versus one [for the Vanier Cup]. A lot of the event deliverables are either the same or slightly modified,” he explained.
With thousands of fans coming to Kingston from British Columbia, Quebec, and the rest of Canada, the Vanier Cup promises to be a major economic boost for local businesses. Lund pointed out that London, Ontario, which hosted the championship at Western University last year, saw upwards of $2.4 million injected into the local economy.
“That was a big motivator for us in bidding on the game,” Lund acknowledged. “From a university standpoint… we really want to embed ourselves in the community… as Queen’s Athletics, and more broadly as Queens University. One of the ways we can [do that is] to bring these premier kind of national championships to Kingston and give people something to experience that maybe they wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to.”
Since last Saturday’s national football semifinals concluded, Lund said the box office phone has been ringing “off the hook” with fans from around the country looking to come to Kingston for this weekend’s championship game.
“Folks in Montreal, folks in BC, and… a significant alumni base for UBC in the Greater Toronto Area and the greater Ottawa area… We’re expecting a lot of out-of-town activity as well as a full house with people wrapped in colours from both sides, in addition to our Kingston fan base and just our community at large,” he said.
In addition to watching the game on Saturday, fans in attendance will have an opportunity to pose for pictures with the Vanier Cup trophy, which will be located at the newly opened Lang Pavilion inside Richardson Stadium. The game will also feature a halftime performance by Leonard Sumner, a Juno Award-nominated Anishinaabe hip-hop artist from Saskatchewan.
“I believe this will be the first Indigenous halftime performer at a Vanier Cup, which I think is a great piece given the Anishinaabe roots here in Kingston,” said Lund.
For fans heading to the Vanier Cup, procedures will resemble most Queen’s Gaels football events. However, all gates will open at 11 a.m., two hours prior to kickoff. With a capacity crowd expected at Richardson Stadium, ticket holders should be prepared to park a short walk away from the stadium, with the dedicated on-site lot reserved for pass holders and those with accessibility needs.
Organizers have worked with a number of partners, including Correctional Service Canada, to secure a range of parking options in and around the stadium. A complete list of all parking options, as well as ticket information and other game day details, can be found on the Queen’s Gaels website.
For those who can’t make it to Richardson Stadium on Saturday, the 58th running of the Vanier Cup will be broadcast nationally on CBC television, CBC Gem, and CBCsports.ca.