On Monday night in Calgary, UNB hockey forward Rob Hennigar and University of Montreal volleyball star Laetitia Tchoualack claimed the 2008 BLG Awards as Canadian Interuniversity Sport's top athletes. Both had excellent seasons for their respective teams. Hennigar put up 15 goals and 43 assists in 27 games to claim the CIS regular-season scoring title and added four more points in three playoff games while leading the Varsity Reds to the silver medals at the national championships, while Tchoualack led the country with 4.13 kills per set in the regular season and carried the Carabins to their best finish ever at the nationals, where they lost a five-set championship game thriller to the UBC Thunderbirds. Both athletes were the first BLG winners from their respective universities, and Hennigar was also the first male AUS athlete and the first male hockey player to win a BLG award.
Interestingly, this year's crop of nominees featured many outstanding players, but no national champions. On the men's side, Hennigar, Winnipeg volleyball standout Ben Schellenberg, Carleton basketball forward Aaron Doornekamp and Bishop's football running back Jamall Lee were each named the player of the year in their respective sports, but couldn't lead their teams to the ultimate prize. Hennigar and Schellenberg took their teams to the championship game, while Doornekamp's Ravens were upset by the Acadia Axemen in the national semifinals and Lee's Gaiters lost in the Quebec semifinals to the Concordia Stingers.
On the women's side, Tchoualack faced stiff competition from a trio of basketball stars: Memorial's Katherine Quackenbush, McMaster's Lindsay DeGroot and Simon Fraser's Lani Gibbons, who was named the player of the year. At the nationals, Simon Fraser and Memorial both made first-round exits at the hands of Laval and Regina respectively, while McMaster won their first game but lost to the eventual champion UBC Thunderbirds in the second round.
From this admittedly limited viewpoint, it looks like they picked the right athletes. Hennigar dominated his sport statistically in a way only Lee could come close to, and he also acheived the playoff success that Schellenberg pulled off. He and Schellenberg were also among their team's best players in their national championship losses: Schellenberg led the Wesmen with 24 kills in an losing cause, while Hennigar scored a goal and almost set up another in UNB's 3-2 defeat. By contrast, Doornekamp went 4 for 23 from the field in Carleton's semifinal loss and missed several key shots down the stretch, including an off-balance one at the final buzzer. Lee was also shut down in the playoffs, putting up just 28 yards on 11 carries.
On the women's side, Tchoualack also performed under pressure, taking her team to their first-ever national final and putting up a very impressive tournament-high 29 kills in the final match. That's not to say that one bad game should be the be-all and end-all, but I'd find it easier to make a case for someone who came through in the clutch as well as during the regular season, especially when conducting a tricky cross-sport comparison like this. Both athletes also have the allure that goes with the professional sports factor: Hennigar recently signed a two-way contract with the New York Islanders, while Tchoualack was a professional star in France.
As a side note, the one somewhat surprising choice among the female nominees is Quackenbush. Ontario female athletes didn't claim a player of the year award in the other major women's sports (ice hockey and soccer), so DeGroot seems to be a logical selection, but Brayden Ferguson of St. Francis Xavier claimed the Brodrick Trophy as the top women's ice hockey player this year. Granted, her team also underperformed at nationals, losing all three of their games, but she did snag a player of the year award, which might have made her a stronger AUS candidate than Quackenbush.
Quackenbush is certainly a good player, but she was only the fifth-highest scorer in AUS competition, so it's tough to make a case for her overall statistical dominance: she seems to be more of a player like Schellenberg who excels at a number of categories but doesn't dominate them all. In the past, these awards have often featured nominees from several different sports, so I found it somewhat surprising to see three women's basketball players nominated this year.
(Interesting facts on Quackenbush from the CIS press release profiling the AUS nominees: her great-uncle Bill played in the NHL, her second cousin Ross is the men's basketball head coach at St. Mary's, and her father Doug played football and hockey at Dalhousie and was drafted by the CFL. Now that's an athletic family!)