CIS rising to new heights with summer expansion

It may not have full-ride scholarships like its southern neighbour, and it doesn't get nearly as much recognition or exposure in North America. But make no mistake, Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) is making significant strides on the national sports scene.

This week, the CIS announced it will partner with the CFL for the second consecutive year, and stage the Vanier Cup football championship during the 100th Grey Cup weekend in Toronto. That means Canada's rising gridiron stars will be featured again on national television, not to mention be part of a coast-to-coast celebration of Canadian football. With 145 CIS grads listed on the CFL's opening day rosters, holding the Vanier Cup at the Rogers Centre this November is a testament to both the dedication of our varsity athletes to their respective schools, and also the league's recognition of its own growth.

"This is great news for fans across Canada, for the CIS, and for the CFL, who looks to Canadian interuniversity football for our future stars, "said CFL commissioner Mark Cohon. "This will make the 100th Grey Cup festival even more exciting, and the future of our game even stronger."

And yet, that's just the beginning.

This off-season alone has seen several universities — particularly those in Ontario University Athletics (OUA) - announce plans to expand into new sports by 2013.

It started roughly a year ago, when Carleton University decided to bring back their varsity football program. In the fall, the Ryerson Rams iced a brand new women's hockey team. Northern Ontario schools then followed suit last month, as Nipissing unveiled Lady Lakers hockey, while Laurentian announced puck squads for both genders - creating the first-ever female team and reviving the men's program after a 13-year absence.

"It's been a long road to where we are today but what a feeling," said Peter Hellstrom, Laurentian's athletic director. "The rebirth of men's hockey and the introduction of women's hockey has been the number one priority within my tenure here at LU. I have always said hockey in Northern Ontario is as gospel as football in Texas."

Moving was also a theme, with Nipissing volleyball leaving the college circuit, and McGill applying to bring their football team out of the Quebec league, both in favour of the more-competitive OUA. New schools were admitted for varsity competition, with Algoma University joining its Ontario counterparts in a year's time, and both Mount Royal University and the University of Northern British Columbia beginning play in the Canada West league this fall.

But perhaps the biggest addition of all is the Mattamy Athletic Centre, Ryerson's spanking new athletic facility. The Rams are slated to take to the ice and court in the former Maple Leaf Gardens this coming season, following a massive renovation over nearly three years that has transformed the historic Toronto landmark.

"We haven't had the quality facility that many of our peer institutions have," said Ryerson athletic director Ivan Joseph. "And we've just gone from worst to first overnight."

These kinds of commitments by both students and administrators don't just strengthen university athletic programs; they help build them to become much greater and more prominent. It gives students an opportunity to play the sports they love and get a fine education at the same time. And it's not like they don't get rewarded for their efforts either - with at least half of tuition covered, via a $3,500 athletic scholarship at most schools, or in the OUA's case, up to $4,000 starting this season.

The strong partnership means the days of obscurity for the CIS could be over. And perhaps more of Canada's rising athletes will no longer hesitate to stay and play at home.