AUS Midsummer Update: With the season fast approaching, questions around spectators and vaccines loom

HALIFAX, CANADA – We are officially within a month of AUS action.

When the AUS regular season kicks off on Sept. 10 with a pair of soccer matches in Charlottetown, P.E.I., it will be almost 18 months to the day the last time AUS teams played games of significance on Mar. 12, 2020. 

We’ll be seeing a slew of exhibition games as early as Sept. 1 though, mostly soccer games. 

With go-time upon us east of Edmundston, N.B., the conference and the schools will be busy tying loose ends regarding approvals to play, spectators and points of general business any other conference or team would hope to pursue in a usual year.

In June, we learned of changes to this season’s schedule for some sports like football, meaning their season will be starting nearly a month later than usual. This means the only significant dates in August will be the start of training camps for many sports. Camps (greatly) vary with each institution and vary even further between sports, but should be as normal as possible with gathering limits and travel restrictions loosened enough to not get in the way.

Fans in the stands and New Brunswick’s unique position

Expect the welcoming back of spectators to be done in a similar fashion to the pro leagues, like the NHL and MLB (unless you’re the Texas Rangers). By that, I mean you aren’t going to flick on the first games on Sept. 10 and see UPEI’s turf field’s stands packed to the brim. 

Key points here: facilities are going to reopen to fans slowly and safely, and these reopenings will vary by jurisdiction. 

The most possible exception to the “slowly” part is New Brunswick. The province lifted remaining restrictions Alberta-style on July 31, aside from certain isolation and testing requirements. Theoretically, as many fans could come to games as seats and standing room can handle. It turns out there are still barriers to that. 

One of those barriers is the involvement of the institutions themselves. Schools still have the right to implement mask mandates or gathering limits like any other business. We’re going to see some of these protocols remain in place to start the season in New Brunswick for most schools. 

Perhaps the most interesting development for New Brunswick spectators is UNB’s intention to fill the Aitken Centre for four QMJHL exhibition games, beginning later this month. That’s roughly 3,300 spectators, plus players and staff, permitted to enter the rink for hockey games. The Saint John Sea Dogs will call UNB home for about a month while their home rink, TD Station, undergoes renovations. 

While the rink will be open to full capacity, UNB will require the use of masks. The Reds confirmed that decision was made by the school, which will keep some measures in place for the time being. UNB will also be encouraging as much physical distancing as possible between spectators when they aren’t seated.

What does this mean for AUS games? Nothing official has been decided yet. But UNB has made it clear, by filling their largest indoor facility for a non-UNB team beginning Aug. 19, it is comfortable letting large crowds on campus again. 

Let’s look at some key dates: soccer will be the first AUS sport to resume at UNB, which is played outdoors. They play exhibition games as early as Sept. 1 when they visit UNBSJ in Saint John. Could this be the first AUS game with spectators since March 2020? Maybe. But UNB could make different decisions at each campus. The process could differ based on the venue as well.

The Reds soccer teams are playing all home games off-campus this year as UNB’s BMO Centre undergoes work, which could again affect decisions on spectators.

One more note on UNB’s spectator situation: the UNB men’s hockey team play their first known exhibition games of 2021 on Sept. 19 (at Moncton) and then at home on Sept. 24. The final Sea Dogs game in Fredericton is on Sept. 18, so hockey training camps will be well underway. While these dates remain over a month away, it’s worth considering if UNB will transition right from Saint John’s games to approve full capacity as soon as Sept. 24, especially if things go well for the QMJHL games and UNB remains comfortable with the COVID-19 situation in the region.

Universite de Moncton is one of three other New Brunswick AUS schools, along with Mount Allison and St. Thomas. UdeM, too, is undecided on exact details on fans but did point out the school plans to open to the public on Sept. 25. The only regular season sport before then would be soccer, not taking into account exhibition games in hockey. The Aigles-Bleus told me they’re “looking for clarification” from the university on whether fans can attend its early-season soccer matchups.  

Rest of the Atlantic Region

Phew. That covers the busiest front so far in the AUS fan attendance conversation, and that’s only one province. 

Next, Prince Edward Island. This week, UPEI reached a milestone, becoming the first AUS school to open ticket sales for its teams. Mostly season tickets are being sold right now but the Panthers have released ticket rates for all options.

A source from UPEI said this week the Panthers expect to allow at least some fans by the time the hockey Panthers drop the puck in October and potentially sooner in time for early-season games in soccer and rugby. It’s not yet known how many fans will be allowed in when the time comes. 

But, UPEI hasn’t ruled out welcoming spectators before a full New Brunswick-like reopening. The university itself has hosted events for Panthers and non-Panthers teams over the past 12 months and has allowed spectators for some of them, under strict cohorting and contact tracing guidelines. In fact, I attended a youth hockey tournament at UPEI’s Bell Aliant Centre in May.

P.E.I. ‘s success keeping COVID-19 out and UPEI’s status as the Island’s only AUS institution are two things that have given UPEI time. Time to communicate with the province’s public health office. Time saved waiting for a public health response. Time used experimenting with what protocols work. The two parties might have the closest university-public health office bond in the entire conference (or even country), which could allow them to do different things other schools might not be able to.

For reference, P.E.I. plans to reopen fully around mid-September. But like in New Brunswick, the university itself must also approve fan attendance of any kind first.

P.E.I. contrasts Nova Scotia in terms of allowing spectators at certain stages. Every N.S. school that’s been heard from has said phase five (“Lifting of most remaining public health measures,” according to the Nova Scotia Health Authority) is the magic phase for spectators. The province is currently at phase four and has a target of vaccinating 75 per cent of Nova Scotians before moving up a phase.

In phase five, some schools have said they can’t see why not to open to full capacity and haven’t been told otherwise. A source from another university said there’s a chance the province could keep certain gathering restrictions in place early in phase five, holding back teams from throwing the doors wide open as soon as the next phase begins. The earliest implication of something like this would be the beginning of football season on Sept. 17. Along with hockey, football draws the largest AUS crowds, often north of 1,000 spectators. A later or modified phase five could change that this year in Nova Scotia. 

Newfoundland and Labrador entered step two of their reopening this week, ahead of schedule by two weeks. Their version of a full opening is step three, originally projected to be Sept. 15 in their reopening plan. However, that too could change if the province hits its target of having 75 per cent of the eligible population double-dosed ahead of that date.

Sept. 15 is only a few days after the soccer teams at Memorial University, the province’s only AUS institution, kick off their schedules at home. MUN hasn’t yet disclosed any plans or possibilities of where it will stand on fans in step three, or if it will do something like UPEI and not close the door on having some spectators before remaining restrictions are lifted. 

Note on AUS/U SPORTS vaccines

In Ontario, most OUA schools will require students and student-athletes to be fully vaccinated to attend classes, be on campus and compete for sports teams.

On Aug. 6, reports stated the RSEQ would mandate vaccines for all its student-athletes, the first conference to take such a concrete step.

Athletic departments and teams themselves aren’t permitted to mandate vaccines for student-athletes or even staff. U SPORTS conferences are more of a grey area. They don’t have the power like universities have to require vaccines of students, but they have a much wider influence. Chances are if the RSEQ is in fact aiming to do this, it’s in constant talks with each member institution to make this requirement binding. Few details are out on this yet and there are sure to be legal hurdles too. That’s something to watch over the next few days.

As we’ve seen in Ontario, the universities are implementing these rules and often require other groups of students, like those living in residence, to get vaccinated. These mandates have also come with other requirements, especially around deadlines for getting the shot. For instance, uOttawa will require its student-athletes to have at least one dose by Aug. 1 and two doses by Oct. 1.

In an email response, the AUS said it “encourages every student-athlete to do their part to ensure a safe return to sport by getting vaccinated,” while acknowledging such rulings fall only under the jurisdiction of each university. As we’ve mostly seen so far, student-athlete vaccine info has been released with other campus vaccination requirements. For most schools, that only leaves them a week or two, at most, to make up their minds on vaccines. Training camps are around the corner and this isn’t the kind of thing you announce last-minute. 

Additional notes

-Turf work and big news at Dal- As mentioned earlier, work being done on the BMO Centre turf at UNB will force its soccer teams off-campus for the season. Part of it remains open for training, but not enough to accommodate AUS soccer. 

Acadia and Dalhousie are also taking the summer to replace their turfs. Acadia’s turf upgrades at Raymond Field are underway and are projected to ring in at $1.2 million, split equally between the university and the federal and provincial governments. The turf, last replaced in 2007, is expected to be finished in time for the season.

Dal completed its renovation of Wickwire Field in late July, which also had its turf last replaced in 2007. It was originally supposed to be replaced in spring 2020 but was put on hold due to COVID-19. Although the cost of the renovation wasn’t disclosed, Dal said it didn’t receive government contributions like Acadia did.

It doesn’t stop there for Dal, as they approved plans in June for the Dalhousie Events Centre, a new on-campus rink, to be built in time for the 2023-24 season. The school hasn’t had an on-campus rink since the Dalhousie Memorial Arena was torn down in 2012. The teams subsequently moved to the Halifax Forum, a 30-minute walk or 15-minute bus ride uptown.

Since SMU moved their hockey teams to its new on-campus arena in 2019, Dal has been the only team in AUS men’s hockey without a rink on-campus. Dal, Mount Allison and St. Thomas are the only AUS women’s hockey programs with off-campus homes. An estimated price tag hasn’t been determined for the Events Centre but the Tigers said as planning continues over the coming weeks, we aren’t far from learning that.

-Women’s worlds- The 2021 IIHF World Women’s Hockey Championships get underway in Calgary on Aug. 20, after being suspended last-minute in April. The original tournament was supposed to be in Nova Scotia but was moved after the Nova Scotia government’s controversial cancellation. 

Pending anything crazy, this tournament thankfully isn’t getting cancelled. Hockey Canada released Team Canada’s roster recently, featuring former McGill Martlet Melodie Daoust. U SPORTS personnel, including AUS staff, round out much of Canada’s coaching staff. This includes head coach Troy Ryan, who coaches the women’s hockey team at Dal. Assistant coach Jim Midgley is a former SMU player and Acadia assistant. Kori Cheverie is an assistant with the Rams’ men’s hockey team, and although she doesn’t work in the AUS, she hails from Nova Scotia.

Ryan, Midgley and Cheverie also make up the bulk of the coaching staff named for the 2022 Beijing Olympic team, which you can read more about here.

-Schedules- All AUS schedules and championship dates are out, with the exception of the curling championships in the winter (typically held in February). 49 Sports has also been compiling a list of preseason games across U SPORTS, including dozens of AUS matchups. You can find that list here.

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