University athletes in Thunder Bay disappointed as programs sidelined during COVID-19 restrictions

·3 min read
Lakehead Thunderwolves varsity athletics, along with other university sports programs in Ontario, have been forced to pause as a result of the latest COVID-19 restrictions in the province. (Lakehead University Thunderwolves hockey  - image credit)
Lakehead Thunderwolves varsity athletics, along with other university sports programs in Ontario, have been forced to pause as a result of the latest COVID-19 restrictions in the province. (Lakehead University Thunderwolves hockey - image credit)

University varsity athletes are just one of the groups forced off the ice and being kept out of the gym during the latest period of COVID-19 restrictions in Ontario.

The Lakehead Thunderwolves, who play in the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) conference, have had their games and training programs suspended under current provincial regulations.

The province has allowed "elite" sports, including the NHL, to continue, but it has not included university athletics in that category.

"It's just hard not to get the recognition that we deserve," said Mariah MacFarlane, who plays on the Lakehead University Thunderwolves women's basketball team.

"It just doesn't make sense, as I think OUA athletes should be considered exceptionally elite. It's one thing to play your sport at a high level, but to also do so while maintaining a full course load and completing a university degree, it's not easy to do."

'Dream to play at the university level'

MacFarlane said university sports in Ontario are underappreciated.

"For many kids, it's their dream to play at the university level, in whatever their sport is, and it's considered one of the highest levels in the country," she said.

The decision to include OUA teams in the provincial shutdown of most organized sports came as a bit of a surprise to Jon Kreiner, the head coach of Lakehead's women's basketball program.

"It's a frustrating situation, Kreiner said.

"We do understand the situation with the COVID-19 pandemic, and that not everybody is going to be granted status," Kreiner said, noting athletes in the OUA are on par with some professionals, specifically some hockey players having played in either major junior leagues or had professional experience.

"To be elite is to be regarded as the best, or the highest level with what you do. So, for us not to be designated as such, it's frustrating, but you look at some of the other programs that have been designated, that asks some more questions as to how this program has been designated, and how we not."

Kreiner said his players are able to train — independently — during the current restrictions, but it's not the same as getting into professional facilities.

"That's the most frustrating part, it's not about getting together and playing, although Canada West is playing right now, and they've found a way to be able to do that in their conference, but we're just looking at the opportunity to get into the gym and maintain our strength and conditioning," he said.

Cathy Alex/CBC
Cathy Alex/CBC

Kreiner said his players are dedicated, often waking up at 6 a.m. to do workouts, plus two hours of daily practices, as well as strength and conditioning.

"This is what embodies elite amateur status, and it's just sad not seeing that recognition being there," he said.

The province said the decision to cancel OUA sports and training is based on advice from the chief medical officer of health.

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