TORONTO, ON – The resumption of the OUA season was only pushed back by three days, but it seems like so much more. On Monday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford and the Government of Ontario announced new province-wide restrictions as a response to the spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, including placing a ban on all sports activity until Jan. 27 outside of a group of professional and “elite amateur” sports leagues.
The Toronto Six and Toronto Raptors can play, Olympians and Paralympians can continue to prepare for Beijing 2022, and high school basketball can play. However, OUA teams and student-athletes are left on the sidelines.
For the second time through COVID-19, Ontario’s university sport has not met the province’s threshold of elite-level amateur sport. While the Ontario Hockey League, Junior ‘A’ Lacrosse, Provincial Women’s Hockey League, League 1 Ontario, among others can continue to play and train, U SPORTS cannot.
All of the OUA’s winter sports are now on hold, including hockey, basketball and volleyball.
Most of the leagues awarded “elite amateur” status feeds into U SPORTS or CUFLA, or act as a secondary league for student-athletes to play in during their university offseasons. The Guelph Gryphons soccer teams make up nearly half of League 1 Ontario’s Guelph United.
In basketball, the Ontario Scholastic Basketball Association develops athletes for the university game in U SPORTS and the NCAA. Meanwhile, the OHL and PWHL, send the most hockey players of any league to the OUA.
The list of “elite amateur leagues,” is similar to the one released in June 2021 during Ontario’s initial “return-to-play” framework, which also excluded OUA athletics. For hockey, it means a PWHL or CHL player would have been considered elite in June, but that same athlete is not elite now representing their university teams.
What does this mean for the student-athletes?
Brendan Bornstein is a junior with the Toronto Varsity Blues men’s hockey team. The Varsity Blues finished atop the OUA West in his first season before falling in the first round of the playoffs in February 2020. Since then, the former Canadian Hockey League player has suited up just six times for his school team.
“Absolutely gutted right now. Especially for graduating players. So many of us looked at this year as a season to do something special and improve our stock to move on to higher levels of pro hockey and just like that it’s gone,” he told 49 Sports. “It makes no sense how other amateur sports that feed into our league can play while we are left with no explanation and no hockey.”
The OUA announced a pause in the season until Jan. 24 in December 2021, and since then, over 20 OUA players have signed professional contracts, leaving Canadian university sport.
For Damian Figueira, a third-year player with the York Lions men’s hockey team, it doesn’t make sense that the OUA is not included.
“It is a huge slap in the face to hear that we are not considered elite amateur athletes when many of us have come from the leagues that are considered to be elite,” said Figueira. “We also have more athletes turn pro (with the exception of the CHL) or compete on the Olympic stage than any of the leagues that are considered elite.”
37 OUA athletes wore Team Canada colours at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, with Toronto Varsity Blues swimmer Kylie Masse highlighting the Canadian team with three medals. Olympic coaches also lead OUA teams, including Ryerson women’s basketball Head Coach Carly Clarke, who is an assistant with Team Canada women’s basketball. At the same time, York Lions men’s hockey coach Russ Herrington is an assistant with the Canadian Para Ice hockey team.
“It feels like we can never catch a break,” said Arianne Soriano, a women’s basketball player at McMaster, who played high school basketball in the OSBA. “We’re put at such a high standard for OUA athletes, train, keeping up with school, mental health, etc and yet we’re treated less than “elite athletes.”
Men’s hockey, among other sports in the OUA, resumed practices on Jan. 3, after receiving permission from the conference to accelerate their return from previously scheduled Jan. 10. With the new restrictions, teams will have to stop training indoors by Wednesday.
How to move on?
Vladimir Lukomski joined the Laurier Golden Hawks men’s basketball team in 2019. He got to play a full 2019-20 season. Now in his third year as a student, he has only played six games since his freshman season.
“It just feels like to me every time they look for the easy way out of situations,” he said of the OUA and the non-inclusion among the permitted leagues. “I don’t know what goes on behind the scenes of course but it never seems like a fight or a chance at maybe finding solutions.”
Like many other student-athletes, Lukomski played in the OSBA before joining Laurier in the OUA. His high school team can play, but his university team cannot hold an indoor practice, let alone play a game.
While the same professional opportunities do not exist outside of men’s hockey, there are still ways for athletes to move on. Several women’s hockey players and basketball players told 49 Sports that they will look to play in the Premier Hockey Federation, or in Europe, just to get a chance to play.
For players such as Leif Hertz, who has played 18 games as a goalie with the Ontario Tech Ridgebacks men’s hockey program in three years, professional options might not be there if he waits any longer without significant game action. “I’ve been in U SPORTS but was just gonna test the waters like other guys but with eligibility being affected I don’t know what the other guys will do,” he said.
If U SPORTS players sign a professional contract and play a game in 2022, they will have to redshirt for the 2022-23 season if they return to school. For Hertz, and several other athletes across all sports, that is what holds them off. However, it also means they can’t play.
“The government is really affecting the future of sport here,” said Soriano. “I just want to play but now I have to consider my life after basketball and if it’s worth it to wait everything out or just focus on school and graduate.”
Only seven games in Ontario were slashed off the schedule from the latest restrictions, however, with the inability to train or practice, there is little chance that the scheduled OUA competition returns on Jan. 27.
The OUA being left off the newest COVID-19 restrictions list could be looked at as a peculiar decision after the general public uproar back in June, however, really it is indicative of how the province sees Canadian university sport.
Even with minimal COVID disruption in the fall sports, the Government of Ontario still hasn’t found the means to give student-athletes the respect they deserve. For an RMC Men’s hockey player, just one more chance would mean everything. “I highly doubt anybody will play any more games but at this point, all I could even ask for is 1 more game.”