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Future of men's hockey team at University of B.C. in question

The Canadian Press

1/21/2014 7:57:17 PM

VANCOUVER -- Milan Dragicevic is determined not to go down without a fight.

Dragicevic, coach of the University of British Columbia varsity men's hockey team, is on a mission to keep his program going as its future remained in doubt Tuesday. The school announced 16 teams, from the current 29, that will play next season -- but men's hockey wasn't among those approved.

"It was really disappointing, obviously -- disappointing for the players, disappointing for the program, disappointing for the alumni -- and all the hard work that's (been done) for this program for the last 100 years," said Dragicevic. "And for (university administrators) to even consider putting this program as a non-varsity (program), it's a slap in the face, I think."

UBC has played a key role in Canada's national hockey development. The late Father David Bauer and former UBC athletic director Bob Hindmarch established the first Canadian national team on campus in 1963.

The university's sport review advisory team is in the midst of examining the athletics department and determining which teams should stay at the varsity level.

The fate of the 13 other teams will be decided at the end of February, giving Dragicevic and the program's supporters about six weeks to save the men's hockey program. Teams receiving a passing grade include: women's ice hockey and women's field hockey, men's and women's basketball, men's football, men's rugby and women's volleyball.

"Men's hockey is gonna stay," said Dragicevic. "I have a feeling that it's going to stay. I'm very confident, and as I told all the players today, our alumni group is a very powerful group. They support our program. It doesn't matter about wins and losses. It's all about player development and development for life afterward."

Administrators contend the varsity teams' annual budget, which has been raised by $200,000 to $6.4 million, is insufficient for so many high-performance teams.

"We simply could not have gone on with 29 varsity teams," said Louise Cowin, UBC's vice-president of students, during a news conference. "And, it's not just a question of financial resources."

Cowin added that UBC's athletics program was on "an unsustainable path" and other Canadian universities have been struggling with the same issues. She pointed to the University of Toronto, Queen's, Carlton, University of New Brunswick, Trent and Brock as examples of post-secondary institutions where the number of varsity teams has been reduced.

But Dragicevic called his team's omission from the approved list "shocking" given hockey's popularity and rich history in Canada.

"It's Canada's national sport," said Dragicevic. "We've been around for a long time. It kind of blows your mind that they would consider this, when you look at the tradition and the community involvement that we have. At the end of the day, I believe they're gonna say hockey is a no-brainer to keep at the varsity level."

The approvals came after teams submitted reasons why their programs should continue. The men's field hockey team is also determined to retain its varsity status after missing out in the first stage.

"I thought we fit the criteria very well," said Arif Virjee, a player who with the team who also sits on UBC's athletes council.

He cited players' strong academics, national team representatives and the team's long history as factors in its favour.

"We've had national team players stretching back to the 1950s," he said.

Virjee, who is in his last year at UBC, feels mostly for young players who hope to continue with the program.

"This is my last year at the university," he said. "I think it's more disappointing for first and second-year players. They made choices in coming here. They have to make some decisions going forward."

Other notable omissions from the approved list include women's soccer, even though UBC is a national soccer training centre that Canadian women's team coach John Herdman has pledged to use for training and player development, men's and women's golf and men's baseball. The baseball team has supplied a number of players, including pitcher Jeff Francis, to the major leagues and Canada's Olympic team.

Varsity teams are being graded on a number of criteria set out by the university, including success in competition, coaching strength, history, alumni support and even attendance, which is traditionally low for most sports on campus.

Cowin and Ashley Howard, UBC's managing director of athletics and recreation, were surprised that 16 teams passed the first stage of the review. They had expected fewer teams to qualify.

Howard said the approved teams made the based on their current situations and decisions were not based on new alumni funding support. But, she said, new funding programs will be considered for teams seeking to be approved as part of the second stage.

The review process has generated strong opposition from some alumni and current donors with many concerned some teams are being unfairly targeted for their high cost and lack of recent success.

Derek Swain, head of an alumni group who has been battling to keep programs alive, was not impressed with what he heard at the news conference, contending that administrators have not been as transparent as they claim to be. He said the administration's plan has been "highly flawed" while the review has "an unnecessary and divisive process."

"I'm hopeful though that they got the message that varsity athletics are very important and they're very important to the community at large," said Swain, a former UBC basketball player.

Swain said alumni groups are planning to withhold donations to the university if teams lose their varsity status. He said it's important to recognize that former varsity athletes contribute more to the university's general coffers than other graduates.

But Swain, who criticized administrators for not including more people with varsity sports experience in the review process, said he's hopeful that some programs can be saved.