U Sports cancels winter national championships due to ongoing coronavirus pandemic

There will be no Canadian university winter national championships this year due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. U Sports announced Thursday the cancellation of the 2021 winter national championships in men’s and women’s basketball, hockey, swimming, track and field, volleyball and wrestling.

‘It is not logistically possible for teams to be travelling across the country,’ says interim executive

University of Saskatchewan Huskies won’t be able to defend their 2019 women’s basketball title they won against Brock on March 8, 2020. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

There will be no Canadian university winter national championships this year due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

U Sports announced Thursday the cancellation of the 2021 winter national championships in men's and women's basketball, hockey, swimming, track and field, volleyball and wrestling. 

The news follows June's decision to cancel six fall national championships, including the flagship Vanier Cup. Curling Canada previously announced the suspension of the 2021 university championships. The decision came with unanimous support of U Sports' board of directors and the four university sports conferences: Atlantic University Sport, Réseau du sport étudiant du Québec, Ontario University Athletics and Canada West. 

"Following consultations with the four conferences, we agreed that student-athlete safety remains our top priority," said Dick White, the interim chief executive officer of U Sports. "It is not logistically possible for teams to be travelling across the country at this time." 

The chief medical officer for U Sports, Dr. Taryn Taylor, added that with the number of cases rising during the second wave of COVID-19 and without an available vaccine, it's recommended that on-going sports restrictions stay in place for the health and safety of student athletes. 

No championship awarded

It's the first time in the modern history of U Sports since 1961, that no Canadian university national championships will be awarded. 

The only previous cancellations — outside of last March's cancellation of the men's and women's hockey and volleyball championships — came during the war years of 1915-19 and 1940-45 when the Queen's Cup (men's hockey) and Wilson Cup (men's basketball) were not contested. At that time, only universities in Ontario and Quebec were part of the organization.

It's heartbreaking news for the nearly 20,000 student athletes and coaches from 56 schools coast-to-coast-to-coast. Outside of making a national or Olympic team, the U Sports national championships are the highest level of sport in this country. 

"We wanted to take things one step at a time. This is an unprecedented situation. We hoped that things would change, that a vaccine would be found or there was some way we could still hold them," said Lisette Johnson Stapley, chief sport officer for U Sports. 

"We offer nine winter championships in nine different parts of the country. Our host committees are facing a variety of challenges due to COVID-19, including travel restrictions and limits on public indoor gatherings that impact planning." 

There have been many layers for U Sports to contend with during this pandemic. Geography is one of the biggest. Canada West, which covers B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and AUS, which covers the Atlantic provinces, have four provincial boundaries to consider, not to mention evolving public health restrictions around COVID-19. For instance, individuals travelling into the Atlantic bubble or Manitoba must self-isolate for 14 days. The conferences in Ontario and Quebec have schools in the centre of rising numbers of COVID-19 cases. 

UNB Reds captain Marcus McIvor, centre, celebrates a hockey title with his teammates on March 17, 2019. (Rob Olson/Canadian Press)

Virtual courses

There's also been the academic piece to consider. Many universities are conducting their courses virtually, while others are offering a blended model of on-campus and remote learning. 

"Timing was important for us with this decision," Johnson Stapley said. "Some student athletes want to know if they should stay for the term or not. It's different across the country. You've got some schools where all the athletes are back and you've got some that aren't. You got some universities that haven't even opened recreation facilities." 

There is a silver lining in that student athletes will not lose a year of their five years of playing eligibility, even if they are able to train or play games within their conference. Athlete eligibility is at the forefront of all of U Sports decision making, Johnson Stapley said. 

"It's the biggest impact. Our board approved a recommendation this summer that if there's no pathway or national championship, then we wouldn't be charging eligibility. That's standard across the board." 

Earlier this summer, U Sports also granted a one-year exception to its age rule for football. Previously, players who turned 25 before Sept. 1 would be ineligible to play. 

Conferences weighing return-to-play options

Though there will be no national championship to play for this season, some of the individual conferences are looking at options for a return-to-play in the winter semester.

For example, AUS, given the success of the Atlantic bubble, will release its return-to-play recommendations in mid-November. OUA has announced the cancellation of all regular and post-season competition for the winter, but exhibition play might be possible depending on public health guidelines. RSEQ has suspended all play until at least Jan. 15, 2021. Canada West shuttered all regular season and playoffs for team sports in the winter semester, but is putting off a decision on individual sports to a later date.

U Sports will announce its updated event hosting rotation before the end of the year.

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