How COVID-19 is leading some N.S. university athletes to go pro

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The COVID-19 suspension of the university hockey season in Atlantic Canada is pushing some players to go pro, and that will leave holes in the rosters of Nova Scotia teams. 

“There’s opportunities that have presented themselves, and then I guess they’re taking those opportunities,” said Phil Currie, executive director of Atlantic University Sport.

The National Hockey League is worried about cancelling games if too many players are sick or isolating due to the coronavirus, so NHL teams can now pack their rosters with backup players from lower professional leagues.

In turn, lower leagues need to replace players being lost due to NHL requirements, and some university athletes are stepping up.

So far, the Acadia Axemen of Wolfville, N.S., have lost four players to pro contracts, and the Dalhousie Tigers and Saint Mary’s Huskies, both of Halifax, have lost two players apiece.

The executive director of athletics at Dalhousie said it’s not just an Atlantic Canadian phenomenon. Tim Maloney knows of more than 50 university players across Canada who have taken jobs in professional hockey. 

“[With] NHL players not being able to play, AHL players get called up, and then East Coast League players get called up into the AHL,” he said. 

The trickle-down effect “has created more pro opportunities for hockey players arguably than ever before,” he said. 

Tough days for coaches

Darren Burns, head coach of the Acadia Axemen, said Nova Scotia teams have it better than their neighbours because they’re allowed daily practices. 

Hockey practices has been banned in New Brunswick and P.E.I., but players still long for the game. 

“Painters want to paint and writers want to write,” he said. “Athletes want to play. It’s a tough, tough situation.” 

While university players tend to be competitive about both sports and academics, getting a chance to play and be paid is a huge lure.

“Obviously playing in front of fans and playing with this energy … I’m sure it’s something they want to be a part of,” Burns said.

Burns said it puts him in a tough spot balancing the fate of his team and the dreams of his players. 

“They have to make their own decisions and, you know, we support every guy,” Burns said. “I’m the coach of a program. You’ve got the team to worry about too.”

Studies continue online

The director of athletics and recreation at Saint Mary’s University said going pro doesn’t necessarily mean abandoning a degree, because some players can continue their university studies online. 

“They’re still achieving, ultimately, some of the goals of their life, of graduating with a degree from the university,” Scott Gray said. “They can make some money and continue on with their education.” 

Maloney said not knowing when an Atlantic University Sport (AUS) season will resume is difficult for everyone. 

“I was not in a position to bring some of those players the clarity or certainty that they were hoping for,” Maloney said. “They’re being forced to make decisions under tight timelines. And right now, we still don’t know when we will return to play.” 

Currie, with the AUS, said it’s impossible to predict what will happen in a pandemic. 

“We just need to ensure that we’re paying attention to public health, and playing by the rules, and doing all things we need to do to get back,” he said.  “We’re trying to take a glass half-full here and say, maybe mid-February? I hope so.”

A mid-February start would give teams time to resume practice and join a shortened regular season and AUS playoffs. 

But whatever the timeline, Scott Gray of Saint Mary’s said everyone will miss their departed players. 

“Unfortunately, they won’t be playing for us, which hurts us. But at the end of the day, that’s all part of COVID,” he said.

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