University presidents from across Canada will gather in Toronto this weekend, to debate a proposed overhaul of the university sport system to halt the exodus of elite athletes to American schools.
Approximately 3,500 Canadian athletes are enrolled in U.S. National Collegiate Athletic Association programs, including about 2,000 who are playing hockey, soccer, basketball and other sports offered at Canadian Interuniversity Sport schools. The "talent drain" is compromising some national teams and even Olympic achievements, according to some Canadian university officials.
A task force has proposed several major changes, including the addition of athletic scholarships, and partnerships with national sports organizations and the federally funded Own the Podium program.
Those ideas will be debated by at least 10 university presidents and other CIS athletic officials who have gathered for Friday's Vanier Cup football game. It's the latest in a series of information sessions that advocates hope will result in changes to CIS rules by this summer. For example: Allow athletic departments to pay for an athlete's living costs.
"We don't think of it as a scholarship. Because a scholarship is for academic merit," said Richard Price, a UBC professor and facilitator of the Canada West task force that generated the proposed changes. "If you're asking students to engage in this other activity, then it's very demanding. You can't expect students to have a job on top of that. It's simply cost-of-living support."
In the discussion will be: giving athletes more money, tiered divisions for some sports (similar to Division 1 and Division 2 categories in the U.S.), and the involvement of national sport organizations. (Anne Merklinger, chief executive officer of OTP, was not available for comment on Wednesday.)
The task force, composed of representatives from 10 institutions in the athletic association which covers British Columbia to Manitoba, produced a report last spring that found CIS "is failing by an unacceptable margin" in being a destination of choice for elite athletes. Sports stars are choosing to go to NCAA schools, where there is better competition, greater support and financial aid.
The task force also found some of Canada's national teams aren't benefiting from the best talent, because NCAA schedules and priorities don't always sync, Price said.
That report was universally endorsed by Canada West members in May of 2012. Now, the goal is to get buy-in from university presidents across Canada.
One of the sports most affected by this trend is women's hockey. This year, 460 Canadians were playing at U.S. universities, Price said.
Dan Church, head of the senior women's national hockey team and the York University Lions, estimates at least 75 per cent of women on the national team in the last several years have played at U.S. schools.
He agrees better financial support would make CIS programs more alluring. But he said the CIS must keep its scholarship program tied to academic performance. "I believe strongly in the CIS model, in that we're student-athletes first."
The biggest recruiting hurdle facing Canadian schools is the misconception that the level of competition and quality of coaching is sub-par, Church said.
Many athletes and their parents also don't realize there is financial help available for CIS athletes who achieve good grades, he said. Athletes who are "carded" with national team programs also get their tuition paid for. Some schools cover the tuition costs of their student athletes – but those grants are capped at a certain amount.
While he would like to see more athletes say in Canada, Church said: "As coach of the national team, what I'm most concerned about is: Do they have access to quality ice time and good coaching? If they have all of those things, then they will be able to progress."