In 2022, Atlantic University Sport (AUS), a conference within Canadian university sport (U SPORTS), witnessed a significant number of its men’s hockey players sign professional contracts as a result of the uncertainty in their sport caused by COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. Deliberations about U SPORTS as a viable pathway to professional men’s hockey are not new; however, the number of athletes entering that pipeline increased significantly throughout the pandemic. In contrast, there was little to no public discussion of women having or pursuing the same opportunities. In this article, we discuss these issues by drawing on the first author’s research on AUS hockey athlete experiences of the pandemic and the second author’s personal experience as a former U SPORTS athlete who also competed internationally.
Inconsistency in the Atlantic Bubble
In a study of how the pandemic impacted AUS hockey athletes’ everyday lives and sense of wellbeing (publication forthcoming in a special edition of the Journal of Emerging Sport Studies), the first author employed an online questionnaire with men’s and women’s AUS hockey athletes, a content analysis of quotations from the same population in mainstream media articles, and a debrief interview with a player from a men’s team that graduated during the 2020-2021 season. In this data, we noted an unwelcome sense of uncertainty that called into question the limits of athlete patience and resilience (observed among 53% of survey respondents and 27% of content analysis material). The population was in a region known as The Atlantic Bubble, which permitted more—albeit inconsistent—competition and training than other U SPORTS conferences. Despite this, the athletes’ decisions to sign professional contracts was a by-product of the inconsistency. According to the interviewee, a man who had foregone a professional opportunity in 2021:
We thought we were going to start playing again after Christmas. Then we’re back at one point playing exhibition…Then Nationals are cancelled… So guys got tired of waiting and went pro—I think a couple women too…You only have so many opportunities left to play, so to not have to deal with that unknown, I understand that.
As it turns out, only one woman he mentioned transitioned to professional hockey and then returned to university hockey, but the authors were unable to locate local media coverage of her signing, apart from her Elite Prospects page. There are far fewer opportunities for women to play professional hockey, and this reality was highlighted by the lack of varsity-level women’s hockey athletes leaving their teams for the professional ranks. Nonetheless, the mention of professional hockey in the context of the study generated two streams of discussion: 1) why other competitive and professional leagues were operating while U SPORTS was not and 2) whether hockey is a bigger priority than education within U SPORTS.
Why were other leagues operating when U SPORTS was not?
An unexpected theme that surfaced in the AUS study was that many participants did not understand why non-academic hockey leagues were permitted to operate while U SPORTS was shut down. The authors flagged this as significant because study participants brought it up themselves and also due to the simultaneous push in Ontario to include university sport on the list of leagues that were permitted to operate. For the debrief interviewee, the fact that universities had more stringent regulations for sport participation than professional leagues was a reflection of education taking precedence over hockey. According to the interviewee:
Junior and professional hockey are a business first, and the university probably operates on higher ethical and safety standards. It’s not just about hockey here, it’s academics. I think the disappointment came from the fact that some of us were good enough to be in those leagues that were operating. I’ve got friends from AUS who are in the American Hockey League or the National Hockey League.
The interviewee’s response captures the frustration that ostensibly led athletes to pursue professional opportunities prior to graduation, which calls into question the extent to which education is a goal for them rather than a stepping stone to more hockey, if not both.
Does hockey take precedence over education for U SPORTS athletes?
In their study of the U SPORTS to men’s professional hockey pipeline, sport management scholars Cam Braes and Jon Edwards observed that, “although U SPORTS is not the most direct path to professional hockey, [interviewees] did not view it as a step backwards but as an alternative pathway to professional hockey while also gaining an education.” This is consistent with the second author’s experience, who in spite of valuing hockey over education while attending university, was committed to earning his master’s degree and going on to play on the international stage. According to the debrief interviewee, “it’s split in men’s hockey. You’ve got your people who are there because they want to go pro, you get people who are unsure, and you get people who are there for an education but also get to play hockey at the same time.” He also commented on the fact that several athletes enroll in university following Major Junior hockey (considered their best pathway in Canada to the formal professional ranks), adding: “remember that in Major Junior, hockey came first for us even though education was important, but here we’re ‘student-athletes’—we’re both—but not everyone balances it the same.”
The pandemic forced universities to move to online learning, which enabled many athletes to pursue professional opportunities while completing their education. At the same time, some athletes had to unpack their priorities between education and hockey. For men who had come from Major Junior, to play professionally meant that they would be giving up the scholarships they received from the Canadian Hockey League. Moreover, according to U SPORTS eligibility regulations, to play men’s professional hockey could possibly result in sitting out and losing a year of eligibility if the athlete were to return to U SPORTS. Conversely, women do not have the same Major Junior scholarship opportunities, and the eligibility rule does not apply to them, although they do not have the professional options that men do either.
The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted U SPORTS hockey athletes’ patience and resilience. One impact of this was an increase in men transitioning to professional hockey. For women, the pandemic further exhausted the virtually non-existent opportunities to compete. How the athletes will continue to negotiate their educational and athletic priorities as they move through and past the shifting options and realities imposed by the pandemic remains to be seen.
Author Biographical Notes
Cheryl MacDonald is a sport sociologist and Associate Director of the Centre for the Study of Sport & Health at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Her research interests include university athlete support and development programming as well as various types of qualitative ice hockey studies. Visit her institutional web page and follow her on Twitter.
Michael Auksi is an Anishinaabe-Estonian PhD candidate at McGill University in the faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education. His research areas of interest include Indigenous hockey in relation to the Canadian residential school system, current pathways to high-performance hockey, and the use of technosciences in supporting community sport and wellness goals. He is accessible via email (email@example.com) and Instagram:@mike_auksi.