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Ontario’s latest COVID restrictions put student athletes in compromising positions

By Ethan Diamandas

As Ontario battles the COVID-19 Omicron variant, the provincial government’s recent decision to restrict the use of indoor sports facilities to only specific groups has generated quite a bit of controversy.

According to the government announcement on Jan. 3, certain athletes — such as those preparing for the Olympics and Paralympics — will be allowed to continue training, but others, including Ontario university and college athletes, will not.

OUA (Ontario University Athletics) and the OCAA (Ontario Colleges Athletic Association) were not granted ‘elite amateur’ status by the province and thus forced to cancel all indoor games and training sessions until at least Jan. 27.

“It’s disappointment, again, but [the athletes] aren’t surprised,” said Ottawa-native Colin Walker, the head coach of the men’s volleyball team at Trent University.

“[Athletes] are disappointed because they’ve been putting all the time and effort to ensure safety … really sacrificing and doing due diligence to ensure that the season can go on, and they get kicked in the head with this.”

The most recent delay stacks onto a postponement by OUA in December, which initially paused all indoor sports games until Jan. 24, but allowed indoor training sessions. Now, neither games or training sessions are permitted — and it’s frustrating for athletes and coaches.

There’s a lack of understanding on the politicians’ end, Walker said, about just how important university and college athletes are to the country’s athletic landscape.

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“I’m sure all the politicians watch the Olympics and are amazed by the athletes and love to get pictures with them,” he said. “And I’m not sure they realize where those athletes come from, which is from U Sports, most of them.

“It boggles my mind how they don’t have this figured out.”

But there’s been pushback from the affected leagues, in addition to petitions from players and coaches. On Jan. 4, OUA released a statement calling for the province to classify its league as elite.

“The notion that the hard-working student-athletes … aren’t considered elite by the Government of Ontario is a disservice to the dedication, commitment, and talent that they continue to show on a day-to-day basis,” the statement read.

In an email to the Sports Pages on Jan. 5, OCAA spokesperson Josh Bell-Webster confirmed his league is “engaging directly with the Ministry of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries to be added to its exemption list for elite amateur sports leagues.”

The OCAA had already delayed its winter season until Jan. 21. If the OCAA isn’t added to the provincial government’s exemption list, there will be further delays, Bell-Webster said. But, at the moment, there are no plans to completely cancel the 2022 college sport season, he added.

For high school athletes there’s even more uncertainty, especially with in-person classes not due for return until at least Jan. 17. Secondary-school level athletic programs won’t restart at least until high school students return to in-person learning, the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board says.

Once students return to classrooms, schools will likely want to see how things go with students in large groups before bringing sports back, said Steve Smith, the athletic coordinator for the National Capital Secondary School Athletic Association.

“At this point, we are playing a waiting game,” Smith said in an email.

Post-secondary players forced to make a choice

With two delays in as many months interrupting the winter season, university and college players have been forced to consider other playing options. At least several notable local players have left amateur athletics altogether to sign at the professional level.

University of Ottawa men’s hockey coach Patrick Grandmaître confirmed to the Sports Pages that players from his team, including starting goalie Tristan Bérubé, have left to play elsewhere.

“Multiple other guys signed pro right after [Bérubé], just not having the confidence that we would get going,” Grandmaître said. “We’ve seen more [departures] now since the province has shut it down.”

Defenceman C.J. Garcia is one of four Carleton Ravens men’s hockey players to sign at the professional level since restrictions were announced.

“I was thinking already ahead into the future, thinking that’s kind of a waste of time,” Garcia told the Sports Pages in a phone call. “I’ve only played six games this year … and then I wouldn’t be able to play until the end of January.”

Garcia, who signed a contract with L’Anglet Hormadi Pays Basque in the French Ligue Magnus and joined the club on Jan. 3, said the decision made sense since he finished his degree during the fall semester.

“These lockdowns, I would say they kind of forced the hand of people in my situation that are on their last year or really contemplating, ‘I don’t want to waste another year of not playing hockey again,’” Garcia said.

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