Unique challenges for Atlantic schools

Schools from Eastern Canada struggle to compete with bigger, better-funded schools

The AUS-champion Dalhousie Tigers fell in the first round of the men’s volleyball national championship earlier this month at the ARC.
The AUS-champion Dalhousie Tigers fell in the first round of the men’s volleyball national championship earlier this month at the ARC.

When the top-ranked University of New Brunswick men’s hockey team fell in the national tournament last weekend, it didn’t just end their quest for back-to-back titles. It also marked the first time since 2007-08 that the Atlantic University Sport (AUS) conference failed to win a national championship in any sport.

The AUS, an 11-school league that spans the four Atlantic provinces, has to overcome geographic isolation, a smaller talent pool and smaller budgets to compete with top-tier Canadian university programs. This season, it was the least competitive conference in Canadian Interuniversity Sport.

According to AUS Executive Director Phil Currie, the biggest deterrents to winning national trophies are financial restrictions.

“It’s always money,” Currie said. “Our members are always struggling with finding the funds to remain competitive, to scout blue-chip players and student-athletes.”

Despite not winning a national title this season, Currie said the conference is still very strong, adding that the depth of quality has improved in recent seasons.

“If you look at the results, we’re right there [during national tournaments],” he said. “There’s growth in the conference and we’re happy about it.”

In certain sports, like volleyball and football, the AUS can only field three or four competitors. To compensate for the lack of competition, the conference teams up with a Quebec conference in an interlocking system where cross-conference games count in both Quebec and AUS league standings.

“It’s been going on for almost 10 years,” Currie said. “We’re looking to renew [existing deals] and it looks like we have another deal for women’s volleyball … to start next year.”

Dalhousie Tigers men’s volleyball coach Dan Ota said it’s crucial for men’s volleyball to maintain this arrangement with Quebec because Atlantic teams otherwise struggle to find suitable competition. This season, the Tigers placed first in a three-team AUS conference to earn a spot at nationals, but were swept in the first round by the eventual champions, the Trinity Western Spartans.

“On the East Coast, it is challenging to get out and play more teams outside the region,” Ota said. “That’s just the reality of what it’s like in Canada — being on the coast, it’s very cost-prohibitive.”

There’s also a smaller player pool to choose from in Atlantic Canada — Halifax is the biggest AUS city with a population of just under 400,000, but the only other cities with over 100,000 people are St. John’s, N.L. and Moncton, N.B. As a result, coaches must leave the region to find talent.

This season, eight of the Tigers’ 14 players came from Alberta and Ontario. But Ota said Dalhousie is focusing on local player development by setting up club programs for teenage players.

“Compare [our numbers] to Ontario, it’s apples and oranges … but it’s getting better slowly,” Ota said. “One of the biggest challenges is having good quality coaches, but we’ve done a good job for the past three years and we’re seeing the benefit.”

Some AUS sports still rely heavily on imported talent — 40 Ontario athletes played men’s basketball in the AUS this season, while Nova Scotia had the next highest representation, with 31.

Niagara Falls native Justin Boutilier — who played three and a half seasons with the Acadia Axemen before quitting last Christmas — marks it down to a better youth system, claiming that Basketball Ontario has better basketball infrastructure than anything in Atlantic Canada.

Boutilier said he was surprised to get recruited by the Axemen while he was in high school.

“Before [the Axemen coach] called, I had never even heard of any East Coast school other than the [St. Francis Xavier X-Men],” Boutilier said. “But as soon as you get here, it’s absolutely beautiful.”

The Axemen also enticed Boutilier with scholarship money. While schools like Queen’s can only offer $4,000 athletic scholarships, AUS teams often cover players’ entire tuitions. Boutilier said he got a free education from Acadia through athletic and academic scholarships.

Boutilier also thinks university basketball is pretty good out East. This season, the Axemen finished fifth at nationals while the X-Men earned a bronze medal.

“It’s pretty good quality [in the AUS], nothing any different than the other conferences,” Boutilier said. “In Ontario, Carleton’s the best in Canada but [Royal Military College] is the worst.”

There are other perks to being out East — Kirsten Jones, a fifth-year player for the St. Francis Xavier X-Women, said AUS sport is often the biggest show in town.

“We’re pretty much the community’s entertainment, we’re their pro team,” she said. “We have a huge following, especially in Halifax with so many alumni there.

“I grew up in Scarborough and it never even crossed my mind to see a varsity basketball game,” Jones said. “After games here, kids are coming in for autographs.”

The X-Women placed fourth at nationals in 2010-11, and Jones thought they were pretty competitive with the top CIS teams.

“We’re a little undersized, but especially in these past couple years, the conference has improved a lot,” she said. “It would be great if there was another time [in the season] when conferences were able to meet.”

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