BRITISH COLUMBIA

UBC men's hockey team given more time to secure outside funding

02/28/2014 01:34 EST | Updated 04/30/2014 05:59 EDT
VANCOUVER - UBC men's hockey coach Milan Dragicevic was breathing a sigh of relief Friday after the team was thrown a lifeline — but he knows his program is not out of deep difficulty yet.

UBC administrators included men's hockey among four teams given hybrid varsity status following the second and final phase of a controversial athletics review process. The men's hockey team's future looked to be in doubt after it wasn't named one of the 16 squads that retained varsity status last month during the first stage of the review.

"We had a great plan moving forward which included fundraising and sponsorship," said Dragicevic via e-mail when asked how his team avoided being chopped.

Teams with hybrid status must obtain most, or all, of their funding from outside sources, rather than from within the athletics department's $6.4-million annual budget, and make substantial changes to their programs in some cases.

Twenty-four teams will retain regular varsity status, while others lost their status. This revised model will commence in 2015-'16 and be subject to review every five years.

"(UBC administrators) are giving us a year to 18 months to move forward with the plan," said Dragicevic, who previously called his team's review a slap in the face. "It affects everything right now. It was a curveball we didn't expect."

Men's baseball, men's field hockey, and women's rugby were also tagged with hybrid varsity status. Meanwhile, seven teams will received enhanced support while 13 will retain ongoing support.

Since the review began, according to university administrators, fans and community supporters have pledged $4.8 million in support of teams. Dragicevic said his program has raised about $700,000.

Asked if he thought men's hockey could get enough money from outside sources over the long term, Dragicevic replied: "Good question. We have excellent alumni but we also need support from (the) athletics (department) to make this work. (Funding) can't be only one way."

UBC president Stephen Toope said the review was necessary because there was no way previously to evaluate teams' success and goals were not clear.

"I actually think that this is the start of a renaissance for varsity sports at UBC," said Toope during a news conference on campus.

He called the university administration's decision not to subject varsity teams to an annual review that all professors face "a failure on our part."

Men's hockey, he added, posed a challenge, because of "junior hockey models." Few Canadian university players reach the NHL or other professional leagues, because NHL teams draft, sign and assign players to the top circuit or minors at earlier ages. But CHL teams provide graduates with Canadian post-secondary scholarships.

Toope said the goal is not to "freeze" teams in their revised status permanently, and some could have a chance to upgrade their status in the future. But he sees the revisions "persisting for the next few years."

Although five teams lost varsity status, the school didn't eliminate any of its 29 squads,

"As I said, I think, on at least three occasions publicly, there was never a target number (of teams to survive)," said Toope.

The seven teams given higher status because they were deemed most able to excel are: men's and women's basketball, football, men's and women's swimming and men's and women's volleyball.

The review process slotted teams based on their competitive success and progress, supports for competitive success, community support and tradition, partnership and fit with UBC's mission.

Louise Cowin, the university's vice-president of students who helped co-ordinate the review, called the funding criteria for the four teams "a tipping point." But teams' status could change if they fail to obtain sufficient funds.

"There is no doubt we are on a better footing, but we are not home free," said Cowin.

She said the university will still provide current athletes in all sports with the student funding that it promised at the time of recruitment.

The five teams relegated to club status are men's and women's alpine skiing, men's and women's Nordic skiing, and women's softball.

Derek Swain, a former UBC basketball player who heads an alumni group and has been highly critical of the review process, said he was relieved that while five teams lost varsity status, no teams were completely eliminated. However, he again criticized the review process for being acrimonious, unnecessary and lacking transparency.

"They've caused divisions between the sports that are highly competitive and trying to retain their positions," said Swain. "And, they've caused divisions between alumni, some of whom are pretty disgusted and feel like they've been held hostage."

He contended there was no reason why women's softball was demoted after it arranged to get 80 per cent of its annual funding from outside sources.

But Ashley Howard, UBC's managing director of athletics and the review team's chair, and other administrators said funding was not the determining factor in the review.

Former Thunderbird women's hockey player Kerri Farion disputed that claim.

"UBC has won more national championships than any Canadian university in the last 10 years," she said. "So why are we looking at this and saying we're not competitive now? It's ridiculous. And the idea it's not about numbers? It's always about numbers."

The review team members included UBC administrators, faculty, athletic department members and alumni.

Doug Clement, a former UBC track and field athlete, coach, program co-ordinator and professor of medicine who was part of the assessment team, said the process caused anxiety. But it was "a positive thing" and will spell more athletic excellence.

"I think it was very successful," said Clement.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story A previous version said no teams were cut. In fact, five lost varsity status. Also corrects spelling of 'Cowin' throughout.