The Canada West’s fall sports season may have been officially cancelled Monday due to the COVID-19 pandemic, yet some coaches and administrators from the conference’s B.C.-member schools seemed united in their hopeful belief that with a continued flattening of the curve throughout the summer months and all the appropriate green lights flashing, that its core of student-athletes might still have the opportunity to don their jersies and take to the field come fall for exhibition-based play.
“It’s going to be a big void,” admitted UBC head football coach Blake Nill, whose sport, along with men’s and women’s soccer, and women’s rugby 15’s and field hockey all had its conference seasons cancelled.
Victoria, Fraser Valley, Trinity Western, UBC Okanagan, Thompson Rivers and UNBC are the six other B.C. universities affected by Monday’s news.
National governing body U Sports also announced the cancellation of its national championships in the aforementioned fall sports.
“I am sitting in my office right now looking out at the stadium and it’s such a beautiful day that it’s hard to believe that we couldn’t be out there practising today,” continued Nill, reflecting on the fact that UBC football, whose official records are noted as beginning in 1924, has missed just two seasons (1943, 1944) due to World War II, in almost a century of existence.
“But we also have to show our leadership,” continued Nill who expressed hope that only with a green light and safe conditions later this fall, that the football program could hold some form of team conditioning and training sessions. “We talk about how our varsity athletes are leaders, and trained to make a difference, so we will all take our lumps and come out of this having become stronger.”
The fate of conference championships in golf, cross-country and swimming will be determined by July 15.
As well, it was learned that basketball, volleyball and ice hockey, all sports which bridged both the fall and winter seasons, could begin no earlier than Jan. 1 with an official decision on their respective start-ups to be made by Oct. 8.
Interestingly enough, the 2020-21 season marks the Canada West men’s and women’s volleyball debuts for Fraser Valley, and the men’s and women’s ice hockey debuts for Trinity Western.
And while national championship dreams have been dashed in fall sports for B.C.’s seven Canada West schools, the thought that some level of meaningful competition could still take place, especially on the soccer field where the province’s conference members field 14 total teams, was the silver lining on a day of tough news.
“We have submitted a return-to-play campus plan, so if we’re bringing athletes on campus, what would we be able to do under proper protocols?” asked Fraser Valley Cascades athletic director Steve Tuckwood. “We did a survey of our student-athletes last week and of the 90 respondents, 60 per cent said they would be excited to come back and train under the right conditions and 28 per cent more, on top of that, said they were open to it.
“So because the athletes are ready to come back when it is safe to do so, that is what I am focused on right now: How do we get them back into a bit of a training regimen, when permitted, under the proper protocols of provincial health authorities, and then doing that through the summer and into fall in hopes that we are going to play some games?”
Of course, B.C.’s Canada West schools have set the bar for excellence in both women’s and men’s soccer nationally.
Over the past 20 years (40 combined men’s and women’s national titles), B.C.’s Canada West schools have appeared in 24 of those 40 national title games and won 17 gold medals.
So even if they aren’t true conference games, the competition would be spirited.
“It’s been pretty well-documented that there are some pretty strong teams in the B.C. division of Canada West,” said Trinity Western women’s head coach Graham Roxburgh, whose program has won five of those national crowns, “so whether that is us, UFV, UBC or UVic, and the Okanagan schools are starting to show they can produce some good results, too. We’ll be fine. We’ll put together a really good schedule if we’re allowed to, and keep finding ways to give the girls the best experience possible.”
Canada West president Clint Hamilton gave his thumbs up to the direction, providing every box gets checked.
“I think all Canada West members are going to be looking for opportunities to create a value proposition for their student-athletes,” Hamilton told Varsity Letters late Monday afternoon, “and if our circumstances change, and we’re able to find some competitive opportunities that allow us to insure the health and well-being of our student athletes and meet with the health requirements that are before us, those will be the opportunities we will be pursuing… absolutely.”
As part of its news Monday, Canada West also reported that none of its fall season student-athletes would lose any of their eligibility status this coming season.
In addition, Fraser Valley’s Tuckwood said there was no hesitation on his school’s part to honour its financial aid packages to its student-athletes, something which he noted has been left to the individual discretion of schools.
“They committed to come and play at UFV… it’s not their fault they can’t play games this fall,” he said, noting that while he couldn’t speak for the conference’s other schools, added “I think our colleagues will all do the same.
“It’s a small amount for the university to invest to get big impact in helping those student-athletes not be as effected as they might be,” Tuckwood continued. “They have gone through a lot over last three-to-four months, as have we all, but at their age, some continuity and assurance that they don’t have to worry about the financial piece just takes one piece of the load off of them.”
Added UBC’s Nill of his football team: “When I make a commitment to a kid, that’s a commitment, and I will make sure that happens.”
While the overall university sports environment nationally still remains fluid, and the fate of upcoming winter and spring sports still hangs in the balance, Monday’s news has, at the very least, allowed Canada West schools to more precisely plot the possibilities available to its students-athletes through the window of the current off-season and into the fall.
UBC athletics director Kavie Toor seemed to be speaking for everyone around the conference as he addressed the theme of the day.
“I would say that remarkably talented people can see the opportunity through the challenge,” said Toor. “The primary emotion is disappointment for ourselves, a bit of self-pity because we love sports and love to see our teams participate and be successful. But there is also a lot of empathy for our student athletes. That’s a big blow for them, so how can we support them and find silver linings in this? But also, even within this cancelled season, how do we find ways to still have training, still have competition? Maybe we can have exhibitions later. We want to allow ourselves the best possible opportunity to have something arise from this.”
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