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MODDEJONGE: University of Alberta players, coaches see hope as season again a possibility for hockey Bears, Pandas

The University of Alberta Golden Bears defeated the University of Saskatchewan Huskies 1-0 in Game 3 of the Canada West men's hockey championship final Sunday, March 3, 2019.
The University of Alberta Golden Bears defeated the University of Saskatchewan Huskies 1-0 in Game 3 of the Canada West men's hockey championship final Sunday, March 3, 2019.

With big-time U.S. college football conferences turning their gridirons into gridlock until at least the spring, the horizon looks more and more bleak for Canadian universities hoping to kick start some sports programs this winter.

In the meantime, it’s making for quite a roller-coaster ride for the University of Alberta Golden Bears and Pandas hockey programs, who have seen their chances for some semblance of a 2020-21 season go from off to on again to who-the-heck knows?

“The U.S. NCAA Div. 1 football, that’s billions of dollars with the TV revenue and everything else that’s entailed in it, so they’re talking about it and I know some of the conferences are being postponed, and that’s tough,” said Bears head coach Ian Herbers. “At least, right now, we’re in the mix for the start of January and hopefully everything comes around and we’re able to play.

“Obviously, it would be ideal if we could play in front of a thousand fans, but again, we have no idea what numbers are going to be allowed and everything else.”

But at least there’s a fighting chance, which is more than the teams could say one week ago, before being reinstated into Canada West for what is to come.

It all started on June 17, when the U of A announced it would be suspending competition in the conference for two-term sports, including hockey, due to financial constraints.

Since then, Bears and Pandas hockey alumni stepped up with bucks for the puck programs to return to the rink.

“There’s a student experience at the U of A, it’s Friday night at Clare Drake rink when you have 2,000 students banging on the glass, rocking the stands and building empty beer cup pyramids and having a great time,” Herbers said. “We’ll miss that atmosphere this year if it doesn’t happen.”

Canada West has marked Oct. 8 as decision day for whether they will be going ahead with a shortened season beginning in January’s winter semester, after the fall semester, including the football season, was cancelled back on June 8.

From there, all the member schools in the conference will then hold their own vote to decide if they will even participate.

“There are still a couple of hurdles we have to go through, but when I told our guys there was a possibility, all their eyes brightened up, big smiles on their faces and they were excited,” Herbers said. “They want to play. They work hard in practice, they work hard in the off-season, they work hard in the gym but it’s still not the same as playing and having that competition and a chance to win a Canada West title.”

It’s a mark last year’s Bears fell short of, despite having finished first in the conference. They came in off the hard-earned bye through the opening round of playoffs only to be ousted from their own ice by the underdog University of British Columbia Thunderbirds in the semifinals.

That would have left the Bears on the outside looking in at a national championship tournament they were previously considered top contenders to win, had the COVID-19 pandemic not cancelled the March event just as soon as it began.

“There’s a little bit of a bitter taste left in our players’ mouths from last year and not having the outcome we want, and then to have this right after, it was a bitter pill to swallow,” Herbers said. “All we can do is prepare like we’re going to play, so we’ll start Sept. 1, we’ll be on the ice. We’ll do a ton of individual skill development, start slowly working in our systems and start getting a couple of exhibition games.

“But at least in mid-October we’ll know whether we’re actually having a league or not.”

And right now, the mental health of his players is as much on Herbers’ mind as their physical health.

“Our guys come here to get better at hockey, obviously, and get a great degree from one of the top schools in the country, but they want to play pro hockey,” he said. “They don’t want to be here for years and years as their window is only so big.

“So a lot of our players are looking at signing somewhere in North America or Europe. But for them, as well, the American league’s having a delayed start and the East Coast league as well. Some of the European leagues are going on time, some are on a pause as well. So there’s a lot of uncertainty, not just here in U-Sports and in our building, but all across the world.”

One sure thing in all of it is knowing the Bears and Pandas hockey alumni and local sponsors have their back when the world gets turned on its head.

“We knew that well since I played and, obviously, since I’ve been back coaching, that one of our biggest strengths is our alumni association,” said Herbers, whose players are also currently working at garnering sponsorship from the community. “The group of people who have gone through our program, players to trainers to staff, they bleed green and gold.

“Fantastic support, fantastic people and without their support, we wouldn’t be where we are right now.”

gmoddejonge@postmedia.com

@GerryModdejonge

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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