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U Sports, Canada West championships, seasons culled amid pandemic

TRU athletics director Atkinson: "It's been a rough go, a tough time for a lot of people. We never imagined we'd be in this world. It has been really deflating and heart-wrenching, at times.
TRU WolfPack
Hali Drezet is congratulated by TRU WolfPack teammates for a job well done last season at the Tournament Capital Centre.

The axe has fallen on most of what was left of the 2020-2021 Canada West season.

U Sports, the governing body for national university sports championships, announced on Thursday its board's decision to cancel all remaining 2020-2021 national championships.

The decision came after consultation with championship hosts and was supported by all four conferences — Canada West, Ontario University Athletics, Réseau du sport étudiant du Québec and Atlantic Univeristy Sport.

No Canada West conference regular season, playoff or championship events will be held in men's and women's basketball, volleyball, hockey and wrestling, along with women's rugby 7s.

Decisions on championships in curling, track and field and swimming have been deferred to a later date.

"The general feel from the COVID task force was there could be an opportunity there without impacting the integrity of the sport, but some work still has to be done," TRU WolfPack athletics and recreation director Curtis Atkinson said. "No definite answer on those yet."

The TRU WolfPack have varsity basketball, volleyball, soccer and swimming teams for men and women.

 TRU baseball and cheerleading squads are club teams that operate outside of the U Sports umbrella.

Conference members are exploring competitive opportunities for student-athletes that adhere to regional cohort play.

"The schools in-province are very much committed to exploring ways for continued competition," Atkinson said, noting he expects only practices and exhibition play to occur before Christmas. "It won’t look the same and it won’t lead to a championship, but we are confident we can still provide some meaningful opportunites and learn a lot from it. It’s an opportunity for us to learn some things about the cohort competition model and how it can be executed if we’re in a similar position next year."

The conference's 17 members voted to make the cancellations and deferrals, following recommendations from the Canada West board of directors and based on information provided by the conference’s COVID-19 Task Force, comprised of athletic directors and medical professionals.

Fall competition was cancelled on June 8. Golf championships were nixed on Sept. 22 due to travel restrictions.

Canada West set an initial deadline of Oct. 8 to decide whether to go ahead with second-term conference competition. On Oct. 2, the deadline was pushed to Nov. 2.

The conference press release includes several reasons why Canada West did not wait until then to cut the cord:

• ensuring the health and safety of student-athletes and others;

• rising case numbers across portions of Western Canada, particularly in the age group of university students;

• continued inter-provincial travel restrictions imposed by provincial health authorities;

• financial impediments to traditional conference competition due to COVID-19 mitigation protocols, including heightened travel costs.

"This isn't the outcome any of us wanted, however, it has become increasingly clear over the last few weeks that the environment wasn't going to change sufficiently to ensure safe competition in traditional conference formats in these sports," Canada West president Clint Hamilton said in the press release.

"Ultimately, our members saw no feasible path to staging traditional Canada West conference events during the 2020-21 season in these sports. With today's decision our members have opted to provide clarity to our stakeholders, most importantly our student-athletes.”

In June, five temporary leave or layoff notices were handed out in the TRU WolfPack athletics department. One has since been rescinded.

The U Sports and Canada West cancellations announcements likely mean the four affected staff members will not be coming back in 2020-2021.

Remaining WolfPack staff includes six head coaches (swimming’s Dalke, a seventh, is technically a contractor), along with Atkinson, athletics co-ordinator Jon Shepard and athletic therapist Kevin Brechin.

Atkinson, who met virtually on Thursday with Canada West brass and his WolfPack crew, is confident current staffing levels will remain in place for the remainder of the season.

"It wasn’t a shock, but when that final blow comes, it still hurts," Atkinson said of the tone in the meetings.

"It's been a rough go, a tough time for a lot of people. We never imagined we'd be in this world. It has been really deflating and heart-wrenching, at times.

"But we'll survive, we'll get through this and we'll learn a lot from this year."