Navigating the U SPORTS landscape after a lost season

2021-22 year up in the air as conferences build contingency plans with hopes of playing

A U SPORTS arena sits empty as the Fall 2020 and Winter 2021 athletic seasons were cancelled. Courtesy U SPORTS

With everything that’s changed since the COVID-19 pandemic began, little has changed regarding the unknowns surrounding Canadian sports.

This is especially the case when looking at the U Sports landscape, where national championships and conference competitions had been cancelled this past year.

With questions as to what the future holds regarding the effect of public health restrictions and vaccine rollouts, the thought of another lost season is a tough one for those in U Sports circles.

“To me, the thing that wakes me up at night I guess, is the fact that we wouldn’t be able to play sports this fall,” OUA president and CEO Gord Grace said. “In the back of my mind, we’re determined and committed that if that was the case, we’re going to play that sport some other time and give some sort of experience to our student-athletes – that gets me back to sleep.

Where it started and where it’s headed

It all began with the cancellation of U Sports national championships for winter sports such as hockey and volleyball back in March 2020. A couple months later, the decision to cancel the majority of fall conference play and subsequent national championships was made June 8 (RSEQ cancelled Sept. 14), but hopes remained for winter sports even if that meant a shorter season.

That idea, amongst others, such as a bubble for the Atlantic University Sport (AUS) conference, was wiped out with the OUA and Canada West cancelling their winter sports Oct. 15, the RSEQ cancelling Oct. 27, and the AUS cancelling Nov. 25.

With recovery plans in progress from coast-to-coast, the issue for conferences consisting of schools in different provinces is dealing with differing public health regulations.

“The idea of getting all four provinces on board in a situation where we could play football for example and be travelling between all four provinces will be a challenge,” said Ben Matchett, the University of Calgary’s interim athletic director. “I don’t think it’s an insurmountable one certainly. That is one aspect of our context in Canada West, which is potentially more challenging than what exists in other conferences.

“I think it’s become very clear through the last year that we’re not professional sport. We don’t have the resources behind us to be able to operate a bubble that the NHL had. That’s just not our reality. It’s certainly going to require provincial restrictions to be lifted.”

A level of creativity may be required in order to make things happen. Alternative ideas such as more time between games to provide time to deal with potential COVID-19 issues, shortening schedules, regional play, and less overnight stays are all in play.

The glaring effect with those, which has been amongst the biggest impacts felt already, is the financial side of things. Schools have lost the ability to generate revenue, hold fundraisers, and charitable events that would normally provide the spending money used for athletics.

“Through reserve funding and other places, finding places to pull money from to pay bills, we’ve been able to get through this year,” Matchett said. “Those reserves in many cases might not be there too much longer going forward if we’re not able to get back up to the same levels of revenue we’d typically be at.”

Impact felt most

The biggest impact still comes around to student-athletes and the loss of a year they’ll never get back. Whether it be the first-year players who hoped to make a splash or the seniors that faced the decision of coming back or leaving on such a note, it hasn’t been easy.

“If anybody’s not thinking it’s the student athletes, then it’s time to change the lens on that,” Acadia women’s basketball coach Len Harvey said. “These kids have come to various universities, not exclusively to play, but it’s a big reason that they’re doing it and why they’re at certain schools. They put a ton of time into it.

For first-year student-athletes, the challenge of walking into a cancelled season was by no means an ideal situation.

“There’s been a lot of ups and downs just like most first-year students,” University of British Columbia hockey player Conner McDonald said. “The experience isn’t everything that you sort of have the expectation of, in the aspect that you’re not out of the school.

“I know there were days where the only saving grace that I had was going to practice or being able to workout and do something as far as physical activity is concerned. It’s tough to say but my mental health is a lot better when I’m able to move, even if it’s in a small capacity like twice a week.”

In the case of senior Ottawa Gee-Gees basketball player Brigitte Lefebvre-Okankwu, it was a tough pill to swallow, despite eventually going to play professionally in Dubai.

“I was caught up in my feelings, I was disappointed,” said Lefebvre-Okankwu. “You know, it’s heart-crushing that you’re not going to have your season and you can’t play with your teammates.

“I really want to have at least one year where I could try to play with my team and compete and try to resolve my unfinished business. With life also, you have other plans, and I don’t want to be doing school when I just want to play ball. I’m not sure exactly what’s going to happen, but I hope we do get a season. I would love it but I’m not sure.”

With exhibition games having been played recently in the AUS and situations slowly improving elsewhere, the direction of situations across the country provides hope.

“We’re kind of moving in a direction to be hopeful that there’s sport,” Wilfrid Laurier University athletic director Peter Baxter said. “One thing in a pandemic, you have to be hopeful. You have to be hopeful that there’s going to be an end to this. As an athletic director, I’m not running an athletic department on a zoom call all day.”

But what about us? How COVID hit the underfunded in sport

U SPORTS has changed the way that Canadians look at inter-university sport, allowing many athletes to stay in their home country instead of hopping the border to the NCAA.

For varsity athletes who have chosen to stay in the true north, their game opportunities have been cancelled, and even practices are limited, if any. For club sport athletes, who are already at a disadvantage, the effects are even more detrimental to their programs.

“Some of the biggest challenges for us is that we’re a self-funded program, we do get a lot of support from the university in other ways, but we typically organize fundraising events, and because of the health restrictions in place we weren’t able to do that,” said Rayner Hart, director of men’s rugby at the University of Calgary.

At UC, the women’s program falls under varsity standing, while the men’s side is classified as a “club” sport. Many factors determine which category a sport will fit into, but that also means different means of funding, support, league regulations and also visibility in terms of promotion or attendance.

Depending on the provincial regulations, some schools have paused practices for all sports, while others have allowed the sports that may be more “revenue generating” to the school to practice and continue to prepare towards a fall season.

“We’ve had no opportunity to take part in our sport, they’ve been mainly focusing on actual varsity sports at the university,” said Kyle Olsen, the athletic lead for the University of British Columbia’s men’s lacrosse club. “For us, the toughest thing has been trying to get back and have in-person activity.”

Not only does the pandemic affect club sports financially, but not being able to participate like varsity athletes also affects areas of recruiting, progressing as a team, and even the mental health of a lot of players being isolated in a province that they may not call home.

“A lot of us rely on coming to practice and having that social gathering with our team because that’s one of the biggest things that we always look forward to – that’s one of the biggest things we miss the most,” Olsen said.

The invention of Zoom has allowed teams to be able to recruit remotely, and hope to facilitate a future for their clubs, but with no certainty for sports in 2021, club sports are hanging on to the hope that interest, and funding, will still be there when they can return.

Abdulhamid and Hayley host the U SPORTS hour, a podcast about Canadian university athletics. This week, the duo discusses the financial, physical and social impacts of COVID-19 on U SPORTS.

About this article

By: and
Posted: Mar 9 2021 8:59 pm
Edition: Toronto
Filed under: Special Reports College Sports