How COVID-19 is bringing some NS varsity athletes to become professional

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

“There are opportunities that have presented themselves, and I guess they’re taking those opportunities,” said Phil Currie, general manager of Atlantic University Sport.

The National Hockey League fears canceling games if too many players are sick or in isolation due to the coronavirus, so NHL teams can now pack their rosters with reserve players from lower professional leagues.

In turn, lower leagues must replace players lost due to NHL demands, and some college athletes are stepping up their efforts.

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

Dalhousie’s executive athletic director said it’s not just an Atlantic Canadian phenomenon. Tim Maloney knows more than 50 college players across Canada who have taken professional hockey jobs.

“[With] NHL players can’t play, AHL players get called up, then East Coast League players get called up to the AHL,” he said.

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

Difficult days for coaches

Darren Burns, head coach of the Acadia Axemen, said Nova Scotia teams are doing better than their neighbors because they are allowed daily practices.

Hockey practices have been banned in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, but players are still waiting for the game.

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

While college players tend to be competitive both athletically and academically, getting the chance to play and get paid is a huge lure.

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

Burns said it put him in a tight spot between 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 also have to care about the team.”

Studies continue online

Saint Mary’s University director of athletics and recreation says turning professional doesn’t necessarily mean dropping a degree, as some players can continue their college education online.

“They’re still in the process of achieving, ultimately, some of their life goals, getting a college degree,” Scott Gray said. “They can earn money and continue their education.”

Maloney said it’s hard for everyone not knowing when an Atlantic University Athletic (AUS) season will resume.

“I wasn’t able to bring some of these players the clarity or the certainty that they were hoping for,” Maloney said. “They are forced to make decisions under tight deadlines. And at the moment we still don’t know when we will resume play.”

Currie, with the AUS, said it was impossible to predict what would happen during a pandemic.

“We just have to make sure we pay attention to public health, play by the rules and do whatever we need to do to come back,” he said. “We try to take a glass half full here and say, maybe mid-February? I hope so.

A mid-February start would give teams time to return to training and join a shortened regular season and the AUS playoffs.

But regardless of the timeline, Scott Gray of Saint Mary’s said everyone will miss his deceased players.

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


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