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CIS hopes to score big with women’s hockey pilot project

Trial project permits universities to offer much larger scholarships to some women hockey players.

BY MARK CARDWELL | DEC 11 2013

Peter Smith says he has lost count of the number of times he’s tried – and failed – to recruit promising young players for McGill University’s women’s hockey team. “It’s discouraging,” said Mr. Smith, who has won three national championships in the 13 years he has been head coach of the McGill Martlets. “The vast majority of the top female athletes in our national sport leave to play in the NCAA,” the top intercollegiate athletics association in the United States.

He is confident, however, that a new pilot project approved in late November by Canadian Interuniversity Sport will change all that. Under the five-year project, CIS women’s hockey programs will be allowed to offer some athletic scholarships beyond the current limits of tuition and compulsory school fees. Starting in 2014, the scholarships can also include significant costs such as room and board and books.

“I think it’s going to be a game changer,” said Mr. Smith. “It gives us a new weapon to use in discussions with players we’re trying to recruit [and] it gives CIS a real opportunity to keep and develop Canada’s best female hockey players here at home.”

An impetus for the trial project, said Pierre Lafontaine, chief executive officer of CIS, was that during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, not a single player on Canada’s champion women’s team had played for a Canadian university. Mr. Lafontaine said that he expects that CIS would extend the reform to other sports if the pilot project works.

Under the new rule, the per-team spending caps will remain unchanged. However, caps on individual players will be removed, enabling teams to increase an offer for a star player to cover room and board and other eligible expenses, in addition to tuition. (Currently the individual cap varies between provinces, based on tuition in the province; Ontario’s cap, for example, is $4,000 per athlete.)

“It might not sound like much, but it could help to convince many high-calibre players to join or to stay with CIS teams instead of going to the U.S.,” said Ian Reade, athletic director of the University of Alberta. “It’s not all about the money, but money is a big part of it.”

It was his concern over the exodus of Canadian student athletes in general – and women hockey players in particular – that pushed Mr. Reade to organize and host a key women’s hockey summit at U of A during the 2012 national championships. The event attracted about 40 CIS athletic directors and coaches as well as representatives from external organizations, notably Melody Davidson of Hockey Canada.

The summit considered the reasons why 400 Canadian women – the equivalent of 20 teams – play hockey in the NCAA, dominating the rosters of several Ivy League schools teams including Cornell University, where 67 percent of the players are Canadian. Canada’s women’s team roster for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia had not been named at the time of the interview, but he doubted that any CIS players or graduates would be on it.

The CIS summit also recommended developing some key performance indicators to determine the impact of the cap change. It suggested monitoring Canada’s 11 provincial women’s hockey teams with players under age 20 to see how many of their 200-plus players accept scholarships in Canada and the U.S. over the next five years.

“We tried to take this on as a research project,” said Mr. Reade. “But then the presidents took it up as an experiment.”

A delegation of athletic directors, including Mr. Reade, met with the eight-member presidents’ advisory council at the Ottawa hotel where the CIS was holding its annual meeting this past October. Brock University President Jack Lightstone, who heads the advisory council, said the presidents readily endorsed the pilot project as proposed after a 90-minute discussion.

“Universities are all about reasoned decisions based on evidence,” Dr. Lightstone said. “Once we have data from the pilot project we will be in a much better position to have a reasoned discussion about the potential benefits and any deleterious effects from this kind of funding arrangement.”

Nella Brodett, team captain of the Ryerson Rams women’s hockey team, thinks the pilot project will have a positive impact on her sport. “When I was growing up in Edmonton, everyone said that if you didn’t go south and play in the NCAA you were no good,” said Ms. Brodett.

Two other motions that aim to stem the flow of the best student athletes to U.S. schools were approved by athletic directors and university presidents of the 55 CIS universities. They overwhelmingly endorsed a new eligibility repatriation rule that will allow Canadian student athletes who play in the National Collegiate Athletics Association to return to play for a CIS member school without having to wait a full year before doing so. Starting next September, these athletes will be able to exercise their “right of return” once in their university athletics career.

In addition, the CIS passed a five-year strategic plan that puts a premium on enhancing the experiences and performances of student athletes and coaching staffs by focussing on values like excellence, team work and ethics. “This really marks the start of a new era for CIS,” said Mr. Lafontaine.

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