VANCOUVER — It was a moment etched in time for Mark Nykolaichuk.
And fittingly, when readers of The Province newspaper opened their Sunday tabloid to the front page of the sports section on the morning of Nov. 15, 1987, what they saw captured that precise moment to perfection.
“UBC Back In Final” the headline screamed, along with a huge photograph of UBC cornerback Nykolaichuk, proudly wearing blue-and-gold jersey No. 34, hoisting the football in the end zone of Thunderbird Stadium as he celebrated his go-head pick-six with under two minutes remaining in the national semifinal, today known as the Mitchell Bowl, but in those days as the Western Bowl.
To the football gods, the re-kindling of that very moment of UBC gridiron glory is especially meaningful this week, because the 1987 Western Bowl, won 33-31 over the Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks, was the last time that one of Canadian university’s two national semifinal games featured UBC in the host role at Thunderbird Stadium.
That was, of course, until this past Saturday, when the ‘Birds crushed Atlantic champion St. Francis Xavier 47-17 in the latest edition of the Mitchell Bowl to punch its first tickets to the Vanier Cup national title-game since winning it all in 2015.
If you do the math, the Point Grey campus hadn’t hosted the penultimate stop in the chase of the most storied bauble in Canadian university sport in 36 years.
Now, the 2023 UBC team will use that home win as a big springboard into Saturday’s USPORTS national final in Kingston, Ont., against the Montreal Carabins. The contest, which kicks of at 10 a.m. PST, is being played at Queen’s University’s Richardson Memorial Stadium.
“I am extremely excited, and so are we as alumni,” Nykolaichuk, now 58, told Varsity Letters on Thursday afternoon. “You don’t get to the Vanier all the time, and the way this season’s team played was very special. To give you some perspective, we’re so excited as alumni that 10 of us from the 1980s are going to the game.”
That group of travellers includes the likes of Nykolaickuk, Chris Cunningham, George Petrovas, Terry Cochrane, Dwayne Durbin, Jack Beetstra, Roger Hennig, Matt Fitzpatrick and Doug Bryson.
Turn back the pages of time to The Province’s lede story on UBC’s 1987 Western Bowl victory, written by the paper’s eloquent wordsmith Don Harrison, and you get the idea that something very special had indeed transpired.
“In possibly the most exciting game ever played in T-Bird Stadium, the UBC Thunderbirds were damn good and lucky to earn a second consecutive berth to the Vanier Cup and the Canadian university football championship,” wrote Harrison, never one for hyperbole, after the win over Laurier.
“In a game where the repeated skills of both offences would have embarrassed half the teams in the CFL, one inexplicable coaching decision sent the visitors, seemingly certain winners, home clutching the agony of defeat,” continued Harrison.
That’s because with Laurier scrimmaging on second-and-10 from its own 43 yard-line, Nykolaichuk jumped in front of a Golden Hawks’ pass and returned it 53 yards for the winning points.
“I was just there at the right time,” Nykolaichuk, a Toronto native who had originally been recruited to Laurier, told Harrison after the game. “It was a 50-50 ball. I was just hoping to knock it down.”
The ’87 Thunderbirds were a Who’s Who of famous ‘Birds football alums, including Jordan Gagner, its former Hec Crighton award winner at quarterback.
Yet while Nykolaichuk, was an essential part of the team’s fabric on defence, was hardly a blue-chip recruit.
He was instead a walk-on with 4.7 speed who elected to come west when his father was transferred to Vancouver for work-related reasons.
Still, his natural instincts on the football field were very apparent.
In 1985, his first at UBC, he led the entire conference in interceptions with six.
He self-admittedly flunked out of school in 1986, but came back strong with four more picks in that memorable 1987 year. In fact on UBC’s next defensive series following his pick-six at the Western Bowl, he took another one to the end zone from virtually the same part of the field.
The touchdown was nullified by a clipping penalty but the interception stood, giving him two for the game as part of a defensive secondary that included fellow cornerback Jordan Leith, halfbacks Terry Ainge and Hennig, and safety Bruce McDonald.
Both of legendary former UBC head coach Frank Smith’s 1986 and ’87 teams turned in perfect conference campaigns, making that era of the program perhaps it’s truest Golden Age. And although the 1987 team was unable to carry it all the way home the next week in the Vanier Cup, it’s easy to hear how much the contributions he was able to make in the Western Bowl have meant to Nykolaichuk over the passage of time.
“I think, like any athlete does, you kind of look back and go ‘Wow, that was pretty special,” he says. “But I don’t look back on it as an individual accomplishment because that is not what it was. It was a team accomplishment.”
Yet that’s not to say that sending your team to the national championships with a pick six is anything short of a little kid’s dream come true.
“Hey, no, no it was,” continued Nykolaichuk, these days a facilities/operation manager in Vancouver’s pharmaceutical and biotech world. “It was a huge dream. It was very special and I always think when you look back at yourself as an athlete, you never look back and think you’re that good. It’s about the team. But there’s still times that I just sit back when (the Vanier Cup game) is coming back around and I am alone in my office, looking at memorabilia. I go ‘That was pretty cool.’ You know what I mean?”
And while Harrison’s tagging of the 1987 Mitchell Bowl as “…possibly the most exciting game ever played in T-Bird Stadium,” has gracefully stood the test of time, Nykolaichuk — as both participant and observer — now feels that UBC’s recent 2023 Hardy Cup championship final win over Alberta two weekends ago should actually now occupy that rarified space.
“I feel like the (Western Bowl) in ’87 was crazy, just back and forth the whole way… but this game that we just won, two games ago, I told (UBC historian) Fred (Hume) that it was at a whole other level,” Nykolaichuk said of the highlight-reel nature of the Canada West title game which the ‘Birds won in front of a hometown crowd by going 92 yards in six plays over a span of just 52 seconds, tying the game 27-27 on the final snap of regulation, then winning it in walk-off fashion with the extra point.
Just chewing the fat in late November about ‘best games ever’ within any football program is a sign of its health and vitality.
And isn’t that what makes this beautiful game even more beautiful?
Like I found Thursday afternoon, moments that stand the test of time can just be sitting there waiting, and all from the other end of 20-minute phone call.
Suddenly, what happened 36 years ago intersects so perfectly with what is happening this Saturday when UBC faces Montreal in the Vanier Cup national final.
“As alumni, we want to go and support the team,” said Nykolaichuk said of UBC’s Blue-and-Gold ’23’s. “We are ecstatic for them. But it’s not done yet. Right? We gotta win. We gotta win.”
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