What we know about the AUS return to play so far, rule changes, and more from a busy early June in the AUS

HALIFAX, NS – The past 15 months had already been the most painful in the history of AUS and U SPORTS competition. An entire season and set of championships had gone under and things didn’t seem to be slowing down as recently as weeks ago.

The U SPORTS season usually ends in March, but this March was instead dominated by the grim third wave of COVID-19, Canada’s worst, that made it seem we were still miles away from normalcy.

And we still might be. But looking at the rapid decline in cases and rise in vaccinations, it seems we’ve travelled a bit faster lately. 

The AUS’s announcement of their intention to return to play in September has been the latest representation of that. But the event makes it more than just the final U SPORTS conference to announce some type of return plan. 

It means Canada’s COVID situation is now good enough in the eyes of the Atlantic provinces, who have been the stingiest restrictions-wise in the country throughout the pandemic. 

No, the AUS and the Atlantic governments who implement restrictions aren’t the same things run by the same people, but they’ve worked very closely since early on in the pandemic. The initial return to play process last fall was in the works with the public health offices in each province and they established some good communication over that time. The AUS has always cited taking action only on public health directives and has been true to its word.

Now, the AUS has received the green light from the provinces to be confident in their return to play coming later in the year. And if the pickiest provinces in Canada are now ready to look ahead in the form of this announcement, one can only drool about the possibilities and lifted restrictions that could come next.

What Wednesday’s announcement means at this point

The announcement of the intention to return to play comes over a year after the first cancellations of university sport in March 2020, including the suspension of the 2020 U SPORTS U Cup and women’s volleyball championships partway through each tournament.

2021-22 will also be the first regular season in two years, as the 2020-21 season was called off due to the pandemic. In November 2020, there was some hope the winter season would be salvaged, as cases of the virus were low in the Atlantic region. However, the AUS and its institutions shut down that opportunity until epidemiology improved and other factors, like vaccines, entered the picture.

That time is now.

Throughout the winter semester, conference officials remained in discussion and monitored the state of the pandemic. The return to play plan developed in the fall by the AUS return to play committee was used in discussions over the last few weeks, including in the AUS annual general meetings earlier in June. 

“The key [to a return] is vaccinations,” AUS executive director Phil Currie said when asked what the AUS would be monitoring in the process of ensuring that September return. “All the provinces are in a phased recovery, so the plans have been helpful as well. Public health has been helpful to us all the way along, whether it was in the fall or right now.” 

So we know there will (in all likelihood) be a season. But what kind of season? What risk will COVID pose to the schedule in September? How many precautions will be in place? John Richard, UNB’s athletic director and the chair of the AUS return to play committee, said in Wednesday’s release it would be worth making necessary changes for safety if it means getting student-athletes back in action.

“While we acknowledge this season likely won’t look identical to pre-pandemic years, we all hope 2021-22 will look a lot more like the 2019-20 season than 2020-21,” he said. “With university sport being such a key piece of the fabric of our university institutions, and a vital aspect of our communities, we all stand ready and united to do whatever is required to achieve our return.”

With the question of public safety in mind, what do we know about fans so far? Currie said the status of spectators attending games again in the fall is uncertain right now and would depend on the progression of reopenings in the Atlantic provinces.

“We still don’t know yet; we’ll know more once we get closer to September. The good news is fans will have more access to university sport [with most games being webcast] compared to last year,” he said. “We cross borders, so lots of discussion has to happen between the provinces as well.”

Reactions around the AUS

Wednesday’s news is the long-overdue news AUS players, coaches and staff have been waiting for since the shutdown. Although (like in other conferences) the return of sports is still conditional on the state of the pandemic in September, several have expressed their optimism and hope in the most normal-as-possible season in the fall.

“The last 15 months have not been easy on anyone. Everyone has been impacted by COVID-19,” Jon Crossland, head coach of UNB’s women’s soccer team, said in an article on Wednesday. “But we’re here because of the great work by Atlantic Canadians. From chief medical officers of health, to government, health care workers and front-line essential employees in so many industries, we’re back because of that. You’re going to see a lot of happy, grateful faces when we get to finally pull on our jerseys and play a real game.”

Perhaps the most excited people are the AUS’s student-athletes. While some played sporadic exhibition games in 2020-21, a regular season is going to be a good kind of different for them. From a few athletes I spoke with this week, nobody could contain their excitement.

“Although we were still lucky enough to be able to be with our team every day last year, it was still challenging staying motivated with no ‘real’ games in sight. But the news announced today made all that work last year feel worth it,” one player said via text Wednesday. “We realize it may not be the same season as pre-COVID times, but we are thankful that we have such hard-working individuals in the AUS and in each school’s athletic department to make this upcoming season as real as it can be!”

As noted, some teams were able to play a bit last year, while others couldn’t, especially in P.E.I. or Newfoundland and Labrador where only one AUS team each plays. For them and other teams without those opportunities, this return is extra special. 

“Everyone was thrilled [with the announcement] and there’s definitely a sense of relief while things are going back to normal, with a potential light at the end of the tunnel,” Jane Vessey, the athletic director at UPEI, said. “We’ve been in limbo since we had to halt the U SPORTS women’s hockey championships in March 2020. Now we can get back into enhancing the student-athlete experience again. Student-athletes from different sports can get back together and get to know each other, and we can get back to our normal fall planning and programming we can deliver.”

Currie said the biggest win of this announcement is seeing student-athletes in their natural environment: competing on the field, pitch, rink, court or whatever it may be.

“I’m excited to see student-athletes out there doing what they’re supposed to be doing. They have the desire and goal to compete and to strive together as teams to accomplish what they need to do as athletes. We’re excited to have athletes back competing where they’re supposed to be,” he said.

AUS rule changes for 2021-22

As the biggest piece of news coming from the AUS AGMs dropped Wednesday, the conference shared further details discussed at the meetings on Friday. Notably, rule changes were approved in football, hockey and cross country.

Football is the first sport to (literally) kick off in a typical AUS season, usually beginning in August. But (in the voice of Captain Obvious), this won’t be a typical season. With the AUS leaning on September as the earliest possible start for any league competition, the football season will begin that month too. 

Instead of an eight-game regular season, teams will only play six as a result of the delayed schedule, plus at least one exhibition game. The playoffs will also change this year; the best four of the five AUS teams will make the conference semifinals (first seed plays fourth, second plays third), with the AUS Loney Bowl being hosted by the highest remaining seed. Given the nature and reason of the schedule changes, the format tweaks are likely for the 2021 season only. 

Elsewhere, the ever-popular three-on-three overtime format is coming to AUS women’s hockey. In regular-season games, teams will play for five minutes with three skaters apiece, while proceeding to a shootout if no one scores. 

Also in women’s hockey, in a permanent playoff format change, the women’s hockey finals will now be a best-of-five series, instead of the best-of-three format before. The AUS quarter and semifinals will remain as best-of-threes. The AUS also essentially confirmed UPEI would host the 2022 U SPORTS women’s hockey championships after losing the 2020 edition to the pandemic. When checking with UPEI for confirmation, it said final details were still being worked out with U SPORTS.

The final major rule change comes in cross country, where all individual meets in the conference have been mandated to last eight kilometres. All AUS race distances now match those run in the U SPORTS championships. The AUS championships hold 8km races, but lots of invitational events through the season are run at 6km and other distances. 

On the schedule front, the AUS said it finalized its schedules, championships and hosts for next year at the AGM. We’ll get this information next week, as early as Tuesday or Wednesday.

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