While the typical university student is coping with the loss of a graduation ceremony and cancelled social clubs due to the COVID-19 pandemic, athletes are facing the challenge of losing scholarships and recruitment opportunities.
Canadian athletes are attempting to tackle the cancelled season, which has limited many sports teams to practices only. Athletes unable to play in front of packed stadiums have a lower chance of being recognized by scouts.
Shamit Shome, a professional soccer player for Montreal Impact, says scouting opportunities are crucial, with the pandemic leaving many university athletes at a disadvantage.
It took Shome one successful season with the University of Alberta to attract the eyes of recruiters from FC Edmonton, a professional soccer club based in Edmonton, Alberta. Shortly after, Shome was invited to attend the Major League Soccer (MLS) draft, where he ended up signing a contract to play as a midfielder for Montreal.
“It’s really important to play games in front of scouts and in front of coaches so they can know what qualities you bring and for them to see you up close and personal,” said Shome.
“They can see so much more than just how well you play as a player — they can see how well you communicate, how much of a leader you are, and that is really important for coaches and scouts,” he said.
Scouts and coaches alike are making difficult adjustments to ensure high prospect players are reaching their potential.
“Scouts have just been getting video clips of players which is a lot different than just seeing them in person and seeing them play live games. The video clips are like a highlight reel where you only see the best of the player,” said Shome.
Lindsay McAlpine, head coach of the women’s ice hockey team at Grant MacEwan University, says the COVID-19 pandemic has affected more than just recruitment — it has also impacted the camaraderie of the team, where the first year athletes are balancing both a new school and team.
“It has been the hardest year I have ever coached. The impact has been immense,” said McAlpine.
“The biggest impact are my first-year players coming in trying to to get a feel and understanding for the university experience — I can’t bring them to campus. They can’t see or feel what it would be like to be a member of the Griffins,” she said.
McAlpine says that in order to build team cohesion, veterans are coming together and creating leadership groups in hopes of getting the rookies more involved.
“They’re trying their best to keep some sort of team cohesion and camaraderie going but it’s been really really difficult,” said McAlpine.
The team only began training as a group together at the start of November, leaving graduating athletes weighing the pros and cons of ending on a cancelled season.
“My fifth-years are now in a position where they now need to make a decision if this is the year they want to end on knowing sports are cancelled, along with competitive games and national championship,” said McAlpine.
The mere thought of missing the final season has fifth-year students debating whether or not they want to extend their studies and graduate the following semester.
The uncertainty of how the final season will play out is a feeling many students across Canada are facing. University of Alberta men’s basketball coach Ryan Bhalla, says the athletes are feeling a strong sense of disappointment with the cancelled season.
“They are feeling anxiety with what’s going to happen next year. They are thinking about every day — coming in and not knowing if someone will have COVID,” said Bhalla.
The anxiety is partially due to the unpredictability centred around scholarships. The reduction in scholarships varies depending on university and athletic teams. For Bhalla, his first year students are impacted the most.
“I know a lot of rookies that originally got money that are not getting any scholarship money now,” said Bhalla. “If the school has funding, they are covering it but if not, they wont be covering anything.”
The Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA) implemented a COVID-19 response to ensure athletes are not unfairly losing their scholarships. The Academic Progress relief states that athletes that were eligible between 2019-2020, will continue to be eligible regardless of credit completion between 2020-2021.
Alumni who have been fortunate enough to play in the championship finals, refer to the experience as unforgettable. University of Alberta Bears men’s hockey alumni Nick Charif, says his greatest memories go far beyond winning games. For Charif, the greatest win was the lifelong friendships made.
“The friendships and connections I made through the sport are by far the most important aspect of playing. The relationships we made on the ice transformed into lifelong relationships off the ice. These are the boys I rely on most, even post graduation,” said Charif.
Charif says he can understand the range of emotions the current athletes may be facing around cancelled championships and lost scholarships — having many friends who have been impacted by the pandemic.
“A teammate of mine played 2 years with the University of Alberta Golden Bears before getting scouted to play in the KHL (Kontinental Hockey League) in 2019/2020. His KHL contract was worth a substantial amount of money. When COVID-19 hit, his contract was terminated; aside from losing out on the money he earned himself, he no longer gets to participate in a hockey season for the 2020/2021 year,” said Charif,
With cases rising, scouts across the country are working on getting comfortable with the new recruitment process. Ross Mahoney, assistant general manager and previous director of amateur scouting of the Washington Capitals, says COVID-19 has changed the scouting process dramatically.
“The biggest changes are towards online. We reference online games and practices a lot,” said Mahoney.
Zoom interviews and taped games are considered the new normal for scouts, but what lacks is the coach-player connection prior to signing for a team.