Manitoba

RRC Polytechnic permanently shuts down Rebels athletic program

Winnipeg's Red River College Polytechnic announced Thursday that it will permanently shut down its varsity athletic programs, and cease participation in the Manitoba Colleges Athletic Conference — news one former student athlete says is disappointing.

College says well-being unit, a more holistic approach to physical and mental health, set to launch next week

Ryan Poirier played and coached with the Red River College Polytechnic Rebels soccer and futsal teams. He's disappointed by the college's decision to shut down its varsity athletic programs and end its participation in the Manitoba Colleges Athletic Conference. (Submitted by Ryan Poirier)

Ryan Poirier is incredibly appreciative of the two seasons he played for the Red River College Polytechnic Rebels men's soccer and futsal teams — and says he's disappointed future students won't have that opportunity.

The Winnipeg-based college announced Thursday that it will permanently shut down its varsity athletic programs, and cease participation in the Manitoba Colleges Athletic Conference (MCAC).

"Yeah, it's tough," said Poirier, who also volunteered as an assistant coach with the two squads during the 2019-20 season.

That was before the post-secondary institution paused its eight athletic programs — men's and women's teams for basketball, volleyball, soccer and futsal, the last a soccer-like sport played indoors — in June 2020 due to the pandemic.

Now, the college has confirmed those teams won't be returning to play.

"It's disappointing because I know I'm not the only student athlete that relied on athletics," Poirier said.

Poirier, who grew up in Steinbach and now teaches at Maples Collegiate, was named a second-team MCAC men's soccer all-star as a defender in 2018, his second season with the Rebels. He was also named MVP for the 2018-19 campaign, while playing defence in soccer and goalkeeper in futsal.

"Athletics did wonders for me as a student athlete," he said. "It held me accountable. It allowed me to look forward to being at the school, being involved with some teammates, building relationships."

Poirier believes finances played a role in Red River turfing its athletic program.

Laureen Janzen, the college's director of student support services, says that's not the case.

"There's no budget cuts here. There's no jobs being eliminated," she said.

Virtual fitness classes, consultations coming

The decision was made as part of Red River's strategy to offer a more holistic approach to physical and mental well-being for students, which will be facilitated through a new campus well-being unit, Janzen said.

That unit, is set to launch next week, and will offer students access to virtual fitness classes and consultations.

Janzen said although the pandemic didn't directly impact the school's decision on athletics, "I can't say the pandemic wasn't part of the conversation."

The approximately $80,000 used to fund the athletics program prior to the start of the pandemic is "being 100 per cent reinvested" into the well-being unit, she said.

Shane Ray, who was the manager of athletics and recreation at Red River for seven years, including the 2019-2020 athletic season, estimates the cost to fund Red River's athletics programs was upwards of $100,000.

Ray, who is now the executive director of the MCAC, is also disappointed by Red River's decision.

"I think Red River College was always a great member, a great group to have involved" in the college athletics conference, he said.

"We are a small conference, so the more teams that we have the better experience it will provide for all the student athletes in terms of competition and variation of competition."

The Rebels men's basketball team won 11 Manitoba Colleges Athletic Conference provincial titles, including one that capped an undefeated 2019-20 season. The team also took the Northern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championships that season. (Submitted by Shane Ray)

The Rebels conclude their participation in the Manitoba Colleges Athletic Conference with 27 provincial titles: 11 in men's basketball, seven in women's basketball, five in men's volleyball and one in each of women's volleyball, soccer and futsal, and men's futsal.

Poirier was eyeing a second season as an assistant coach with the Rebels teams, but now will not have that opportunity.

"I was very happy to come back and share my knowledge, share my experiences with other student athletes," he said.

Future of the MCAC

With the departure of the Rebels, the MCAC is left with five members: Assiniboine Community College, Canadian Mennonite University, Université de Saint-Boniface, Providence University College and Brandon University.

Providence University College athletics director Scott Masterson said his school, and MCAC, are "certainly disappointed in this decision as Red River College has been a valued member of the MCAC and has always added positively to the student-athlete experience within MCAC athletics."

"We have been hoping that they would be adding teams back into the MCAC this next season and this decision came as a surprise to all of us," Masterson said in an email to CBC News.

None of the other conference members have plans to shut down any of their sports programs.

Brandon University, which is also a member of the Canada West conference, recently added women's rugby as a club team. The Université de Saint-Boniface added men's and women's basketball this season.

Despite the sudden departure of the Rebels, Ray says there have been ongoing internal discussions at the MCAC about conference expansion, including the possibility of adding schools in Saskatchewan or northwestern Ontario.

The MCAC basketball and volleyball seasons are paused until Jan. 28, while the start of the futsal season has been delayed until February due to increased concerns surrounding COVID-19.

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