TORONTO, ON – The flight is on Monday. Team Canada’s men’s and women’s hockey teams were all booked to fly out of Toronto’s Pearson International Airport on a 9:00 pm flight to Zurich. They would have then gone to Lucerne to start their FISU Winter Universiade.
This weekend, the final slate of U SPORTS games from coast to coast should have been the Switzerland Sendoff for the selected student-athletes and staff. Instead, they all got ready to take a break from sport for the holidays.
“It was heartbreaking, maybe more heartbreaking for my dad who didn’t get to go,” said Toronto Varsity Blue Gabrielle De Serres after her team’s 2021 ending overtime win over the Ryerson Rams. “It’s the closest I would have gotten to a childhood dream of getting to wear that Canadian jersey.”
After being postponed from January due to COVID-19, the Lucerne 2021 Winter Universiade, scheduled to begin on Dec. 11, was cancelled on Nov. 29, less than two weeks before the Opening Ceremony due to the global rise of the Omicron variant and Switzerland’s re-instated travel restrictions.
On Nov. 16, U SPORTS, which organizes the Team Canada delegation, named 102 student-athletes to wear the maple leaf in Central Switzerland, including Toronto’s De Serres and Ryerson’s Erika Crouse.
“It was an honour to be named; I wasn’t expecting it at all,” said Crouse. “It was disappointing to see it cancelled, but I am sure that if I work hard, other opportunities could present themselves.”
De Serres and Crouse stood, leaning back and forth as “Oh Canada” blared through Varsity Arena’s speakers on Friday night. On Dec. 12, they would have been doing the same thing overseas, wearing Canadian colours in Sursee, Switzerland.
The two, who battled in the latest chapter of a fierce downtown Toronto rivalry, would have dropped the puck on their first international experience on Dec. 12 with a game against Japan.
Looking ahead without Lucerne 2021
While the two had played against each other countless times, De Serres, a fifth-year at the University of Toronto, had limited familiarity with Crouse in their final game of 2021. “That was going to be a tomorrow thing; the focus would have shifted to FISU,” she said.
Missing out on the 2021 Universiade is heartbreaking for the thousands of organizers, staff and athletes, but the staff can get another chance, not something the student-athletes will get to do. In her final year with Toronto, De Serres will not be eligible for selection at the next games in January 2023 in Lake Placid.
“I was short-listed three years ago but didn’t make it,” she said, having missed out on being part of the Canadian team that won a silver medal at Krasnoyarsk 2019. “That was a big driver to work harder, and it gave me a new personal goal.”
Although De Serres did not play in 2020-21 with the OUA season cancelled, the last time that she left Varsity Arena’s ice before this season was the 2019-20 McCaw Cup Final, when she won the OUA title with Toronto against York.
Without the FISU Winter Universiade to focus on, everything shifts to winning the McCaw Cup once again. “I want it more than ever now,” she said. “I wanted it a lot, but now we have nothing else to work for but that and nationals.”
For Crouse, there might just be another chance to represent Canada in Lake Placid. Only in her third year of eligibility she will be eligible for selection come next winter. The challenge, however, will be navigating likely a new managerial and coaching staff who may select a very different group of players.
“I think she is one of the upper echelon players in our conference,” said Crouse’s Head Coach Lisa Haley, who also coaches the Hungarian Women’s National Team. “I think she’s that good that she deserved to be on that team, so it’s disappointing that she won’t get that experience.”
The rest of the season for all the student-athletes focuses on winning championships with their schools rather than medals for Canada. While hockey teams were away from the action for nearly two years, one still must be crowned champion.
A plane will take off from Toronto en route to Zurich on Monday night. There should have been loads of hockey equipment and nearly 100 members of Team Canada. Instead, the aircraft will soar over the Atlantic, with the ghosts of FISU planning taking the vacant seats.