Former pros play university sports

CIS policy allows former professionals to take part in varsity competition

Former pro Hayley Wickenheiser is in her second season with the Calgary Dinos women's hockey team.
Former pro Hayley Wickenheiser is in her second season with the Calgary Dinos women's hockey team.

Hayley Wickenheiser spent three years overseas on a highly-publicized stint in professional European men’s leagues.

Now, she’s playing Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) hockey with the Calgary Dinos.

The forward has won four Olympic gold medals and six world championships for the Canadian women’s team. She’s widely considered the world’s best female hockey player.

Unlike its American counterpart, the CIS allows former professionals to play on university squads — as long as 365 days have passed since their last pro appearance.

In the U.S., National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) regulations disallow any professional involvement. Once athletes play at the pro level, they’re permanently ineligible to participate in the NCAA.

“We want CIS to be the destination of choice for top athletes,” CIS chief of executive operations Marg McGregor said. “It elevates the media exposure of the league, it provides role models and elevates the quality of play.”

In the Dinos’ season opener against the University of Alberta Golden Bears on Oct. 21, Wickenheiser recorded a game-winning goal, an assist and a penalty for gross misconduct that resulted in a two-game suspension.

This is Wickenheiser’s second season with the Dinos. Last season, she scored 40 points in 15 games and was named CIS MVP.

Wickenheiser isn’t the first high-profile hockey player to join the CIS — former NHL players Mike Danton and Dan LaCosta played CIS hockey in 2011.

McGregor said the distinction between professional and amateur sport is often unclear in Canada.

“Nowadays, there’s a blurring between the various leagues and development leagues that are taking place in sports like basketball and soccer,” she said.

CIS doesn’t impose eligibility restrictions because former professionals enrolled at Canadian universities deserve the same rights as other students, McGregor said.

“We want to provide an athletic experience for our students,” she said. “If those students happen to be students with previous professional sports experience, that should not exclude them.”

CIS Director of Operations and Development Tom Huisman said some CIS coaches use the pro policy as a way to attract top athletes.

“In volleyball, there are opportunities for [athletes] to go to Europe and play professionally and make some money,” he said. “Most volleyball coaches are not against that because ... they’ll still have some eligibility remaining.” In men’s hockey, professional eligibility rules also apply to athletes who have played in the Canadian Hockey League (CHL) — the highest level of junior hockey in Canada. To deter players from going to the U.S. and playing in the NCAA, CHL teams offer hockey players a year’s tuition at a Canadian university for every season they play major junior hockey.

Head coach Brett Gibson said the CIS hockey is unique in allowing athletes to play at a high level while getting an education.

“It’s becoming a bit of a fallback league for guys that choose not to [stay] pro,” he said.

Because major junior hockey starts at age 16, players have to decide at a young age whether to play in the CHL or wait for the NCAA. Gibson said the CHL’s offer to pay university tuition means players can pursue a pro career knowing that they’ll still be able to play CIS hockey if things don’t work out.

The CIS is an increasingly popular league for those players. Gibson said the Gaels have nine former CHL players — a low number in the CIS.

“Most teams have about 20 guys,” he said.

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