Every day that Darren Lowe reports to work, the spoils of the rich history of the University of Toronto Varsity Blues flutter above his head at Varsity Arena.
The faded orange championship banners hang from the rafters of the stately facility, celebrating an unparalleled period in men’s hockey when the Varsity Blues were the undisputed Canadian kings of the game at the university level.
These days, those banners are also a frustrating reminder to Lowe over his failure to add to the collection during his long tenure as head coach, now into its 18th season.
“I rationalize it by saying, ‘We’ve been close a lot of times and we’ve had some bad breaks,’ ” the former Canadian Olympian and NHL player said during a recent interview. “I wouldn’t keep coming back if I didn’t think that it was possible.
“In our situation, the stars have to line up exactly right.”
It has been quite a while since that happened. Although Lowe’s teams have qualified for the playoffs every season he has been the coach, the Blues have not been able to win the league championship since 1992-93, when Paul Titanic was guiding the program.
The Blues have garnered 10 national championships in their history, the last occurring in 1984, with head coach Mike Keenan. The others all occurred during the golden era of Tom Watt, who coached the Blues to nine titles during his 14 years with the program, including seven in eight years from 1965-66 to 1972-73.
That was before the eligibility rule came into effect, which limited student athletes to five years of university competition. The rule, which has been around since the early 1970s, was a way of levelling the playing field among the 54 institutions that now form Canadian Interuniversity Sport.
In Watt’s day, larger postsecondary institutions such as the U of T enjoyed a competitive advantage over schools that only offered undergraduate studies (which typically last four years).
Many of the players on Watt’s championship teams played for six or seven years – one famously logged eight years in the 1950s – as they worked on postgraduate professional programs such as law, dentistry or medicine.
Stephen Monteith, who remains the U of T men’s all-time leading scorer with 249 points (102 goals), played for seven years from 1961-69 on his way to earning degrees in commerce and law.
To this day, Watt, now a pro scout for the Toronto Maple Leafs, remains bitter about the eligibility rule. “I’m very disappointed in the CIS,” he said. “The eligibility rules are more stringent than the Olympic Games. And I’ve told them that, too, which they didn’t appreciate.”
It is Watt’s belief that as long as a person is admitted by the university’s registrar as a full-time student, they should be able to participate in intercollegiate athletics.
He said the U of T is being hit doubly hard because its admission standards – which can be as high as 85 per cent, depending on the program – are more stringent than other smaller universities that don’t offer graduate programs.
The point, Watt emphasized, is that not only was the U of T producing great athletes but also great scholars, “as opposed to some other places where they graduate and they’re selling cookies.”
For Lowe, the fact institutions that participate in Ontario University Athletics still lag behind other Canadian university sports associations when it comes to the granting of scholarships also works against him in luring the top hockey players.
At CIS member schools, entering students must have an 80-per-cent average to qualify for an athletic scholarship that can run anywhere from about $2,000 a year in tuition fees at some Quebec institutions to $20,000 at some of country’s top schools.
However, in Ontario, the scholarship payout has been capped at $4,000 a year.
“It’s not about any philosophical issue our member schools have with scholarships,” said Ward Dilse, the OUA’s executive director. “It’s just an indication of what our schools can afford to do at this stage.”
Dilse points out that there are 20 universities in Ontario – close to half of the CIS membership – so there is not a lot of money to go around. Dilse also notes that even with the more stringent scholarship guidelines, Ontario schools are more than holding their own. Last year at CIS national sport championships, OUA teams won 12 of the 21 titles.
All the politics matters little to Lowe, whose team is off to a fast start (5-0-1), and has cracked the CIS top 10 this week (No. 9) for the first time since March of 2004.
“I honesty think this year this is one of the best teams I’ve had,” he said.