Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Canada’s university sports scene still matters

Katie Polischuk posts up down low for the Cougars.
    REGINA - It is crazy to think that university level women’s hoops games played in a small gym in the capital of Saskatchewan about 16 to 20 years ago can still matter.
    If you were in Regina last weekend, you saw one big example that Canada’s university sports teams that play under the league umbrella called U Sports and that entire scene still matters. Last Saturday, the alums from the University of Regina Cougars basketball teams gathered for an alumni and family night to remember Crystal (Heisler) McGregor, who passed away from cancer in May of 2014. 
    The function was held as part of the Cougars hoops games that were played that night against the University of Calgary Dinos.
    McGregor last played for the Cougars in March of 2002, but during her playing days, she cemented herself as arguably the team’s most likable star. She was one of many key players that helped the Cougars rise to national prominence in the late 1990s and early 2000s, which included winning a national championship in 2001 with a 94-85 victory over the University of Alberta Pandas in Edmonton.
    Most of the Cougars home games were played in front crowds that were shoehorned packed into the stands at the small Physical Activity Centre.
Michaela Kleisinger, right, drives down court for the Cougars.
    On the court, McGregor, who developed her love for the game rising in Regina’s minor basketball scene, was known for her deadly outside shot and her tendency to pass the ball.
    Off the court, she was just as well known for her infectious smile, ability to fill any room she stepped in with positive energy and greet anybody with her perky catch phrase, “Hi buddy.”
    After graduating from the U of R, McGregor remained involved in the Regina basketball community coaching school and club teams until her cancer diagnosis in January of 2012. Like many of the players from the Cougars women’s teams in the late 1990s and early 2000s, McGregor achieved celebrity status in Regina.
    Her status never diminished after her playing days concluded, because of how beautifully she carried herself in her career and with the family she started to raise of daughter, Aija, and son, Zayden, with her husband, Paul.
Christina McCusker, right, hands the ball off to Avery Pearce.
    Countless former players, coaches and staffers made it back to Regina for that alumni and family night from all eras, but especially McGregor’s era. 
    Cymone (Bouchard) Bernauer, who was the greatest star of the Cougars women’s basketball team, refers to McGregor as the best teammate and mentor.
    I was also one of the returnees having covered the Cougars hoops teams and helped them with media items during McGregor’s era.
    Even in the present day, the current Cougars women’s basketball team still holds a special place in the heart of the Regina community.
    It seems fitting all of the Cougars players from the Regina area, which comprises the majority of the team, were coached at some point in their lives by an alum of the Cougars women’s program.
Seeing info for fundraisers like this get shredded hurt.
    There is an excitement in the community about the fact the U of R will host the U Sports women’s basketball national championship tournament in 2018.
    That whole weekend reminded me how powerful an impact the university sports teams in Canada can have on their respective communities. The local heroes and role models those teams create are important. Those players also do their part to give back to ensure their local communities remain healthy when they are playing and when they move on to their post-playing days.
    For me in what seems like a more general negative era for the world where the mainstream media in Canada has been slashed to less than skeleton crew size, I feel like I run into way too many people who couldn’t care less about the Canadian university sports scene.
    They think it is inferior because it is not the National Collegiate Athletic Association in the United States and put me down for wanting to be involved in it at all. They have no idea how much commitment and training the athletes put into being good at their sports and excelling in the classroom.
    As I currently live in Saskatoon, I remember going to a company I was doing contract work for and watched a manager give no second thought to shredding pamphlets and information for the Off the Leash Luncheon, which is a major fundraiser for the University of Saskatchewan Huskies men’s hockey team.
My column on Kaitlin Willoughby received praise.
    I know the University of Saskatchewan Huskies athletic program carries a huge importance to the community of Saskatoon, and I have spent a lot of time covering the Huskies men’s and women’s hockey teams and hold them close to my heart.  
    When I saw those Off the Leash Luncheon items get shredded, my heart broke at that moment.
    I have run into people who just couldn’t believe I would spend a Friday or Saturday night at a Huskies event or even drive two-and-a-half hours on the highway to go to a University of Regina athletics event.
    I find the slashed mainstream media treats U Sports as little kids’ sports these days almost to a point they don’t matter.
    Actually, the Western Hockey League beat writer is an endangered species in Western Canada, so you can already see the trouble the university sports scene or any local sports scene faces in battling for exposure.
    Still, I find reminders that even though the negative voices are loud they are also in the minority. The overwhelming positive response to a column I wrote on Kaitlin Willoughby, who is a star forward of the Huskies women’s hockey team, shows there is still a current demand to have local heroes.
    In women’s athletics, Canadian university teams are one of the rare places you can find these local heroes.
    Of course in Saskatoon, you have to give high praise to the Saskatoon Valkyries women’s football team and the Saskatoon Stars female midget AAA hockey team for doing their part to produce high quality role models in women’s sports.
The Cougars men’s basketball team begins to celebrate an upset win.
    Also, one just has to look at the uproar over how the departure of legendary Huskies football head coach Brian Towriss was handled late last December to show how much passion can still engulf the Canadian university sports scene.
    As for last Saturday in Regina, the current Cougars basketball teams added the capper for the packed gym at the U of R’s Centre for Kinesiology Health and Sport. The women’s team romped over the Dinos 83-46, while the men’s team pulled out a thrilling last-second 82-81 victory over the U of C.
    That further sparked a celebration from alums to current players that went well into the night.
    U Sports still matters, and that should never be forgotten.

    If you have any comments you would like to pass along about this post, feel free to email them to stankssports@gmail.com.