Almost a success: How close was the AUS to having U SPORTS’ only winter season?

Halifax, N.S.- It wasn’t clear what stance the AUS would take on a winter season heading into an all-important board of directors meeting on Nov. 24. 

COVID-19 cases have been on the rise since early November in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia and the seemingly impenetrable Atlantic bubble met its needle the day before the meeting, when P.E.I. and Newfoundland and Labrador reimposed travel restrictions on Atlantic travellers. The bubble, and privileges for teams in AUS provinces to train uninterrupted for most of the semester, were successful for a while. 

But case spikes, including community spread in Halifax, was the writing on the wall for a winter season and playoffs in the AUS. AUS President John Richard said there wasn’t any serious objection to the decision to scrap the season.

“Everyone understands where the current situation with COVID in the region is and where it could be in the future. It shows how quickly reality changes when COVID seeps into our communities,” he said.

The AUS was the only league, in a fury of announcements across the U SPORTS world on Oct. 15, to announce an active intention to consider returning to play in January. The AUS formed their Return-To-Play Committee at this time, who created a return to play plan that was reviewed by the public health departments in the four Atlantic provinces.

The OUA and Canada West had announced cancellations of their entire seasons in October, save for the distinct possibility of swimming, track & field and curling competition in Canada West. The RSEQ’s chances of returning this year are bleaker by the day as Quebec continues to see record-high daily case counts. The conference has only cancelled competition until Jan. 15 thus far.

Richard said while the AUS community held out hope for a season to materialize, it wasn’t feasible due to the AUS return to play plan’s commitment to follow “the most current public health directives,” of which were provincial border closings and increasing restrictions in areas at the time. 

“There’s a lot of challenges and dynamics in this conference. It spans across four provinces; there’s travel, including overnight and by air, in a normal year,” Richard said. “Certain schools have more [of these travel resources] than others, which makes it a challenging aspect for many schools and also our business.”

Dalhousie Tigers Athletic Director Tim Maloney said a sanctioned winter season isn’t “terribly realistic” given the current situation.

“There was a little more optimism before cases rose, but there was a level of concern this fall that the second wave [of COVID-19] hadn’t hit our region yet,” Maloney said. “Our optimism was measured.”

In an interview with Global Halifax on Nov. 26, AUS Executive Director Phil Currie said the conference was optimistic and close to organizing a season before the second week of November.

“If the Bubble would have remained in place and we would have kept the cases at bay, we might have been able to get to a league schedule and championships,” he said. “Unfortunately, in the world of COVID, things change rapidly. It all changed for us in the last week or so.”

Currie gave kudos to the Return-to-Play Committee’s work, including its effort to create a plan allowing for member-driven competition. Richard said the return to play plan drafted over the last couple of months will be important when both member and league-sanctioned action resumes. In member-driven competition, teams playing in exhibition games must follow AUS policies, including those in the new plan.

“That’s one of the plan’s advantages: it clearly articulates a path back to sport, whenever that may be. There’s a lot of good direction in it detailing what the road back could look like,” Richard said. “We’re going to use the plan moving forward. It’s not going to collect dust.”

The AUS will reevaluate the COVID-19 situation in Atlantic Canada and talk with schools more about member-driven competition in the new year, Richard said. The AUS begins planning its fall schedule in the second semester of the school year, meaning the conference will once again have to examine possibilities of play months ahead of time. The upcoming conversations become more intriguing with a COVID-19 vaccine around the corner.

“We’ll take a breath for now [after a lot of planning this semester] and on the other side of the holidays, we’ll see where cases and restrictions are and see what could possibly happen in the coming months,” he said.

Although student-athletes and schools are disappointed by the news, Maloney said schools in the region were privileged this fall and are thankful for the opportunities teams had in being able to train together and occasionally play exhibition games.

“I’m really proud of our student-athletes and coaches in how they handled this situation. They worked exceptionally hard, remained committed and adapted to change, and I expect the same in the new year,” he said. “By then, our hope is that we get to play some exhibition games in the new year if health authorities allow it.”

Maloney stressed the reality of sport at this time: athletes, coaches and everyone involved are a part of society in a global pandemic.

“There are a lot of other people feeling more pain than we are,” he said. “It’s important to remember that.”

Cover Photo: Dalhousie University 

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