Hockey: UNB Varsity Reds women's team gets court-ordered reinstatement

Eight years and who knows how many lost playing opportunities for dedicated, determined female hockey players later, the University of New Brunswick has been ordered by the provincial labour and employment to restore varsity status to the Varsity Reds women's hockey team by 2017-18.

Hopefully, it will. Neither you nor I have the context for the second-last and last paragraphs of the CBC story, where UNB director of athletics John Richard is quoted the "legal team is kind of digesting it for us" and a university statement states it "continues to evaluate its options while co-operating fully with the process."

Sylvia Bryson, who was one of the Varsity Reds affected by the program cut in 2008, filed complaints with both the labour & employment board and the human rights commission. The former has determined this was discrimination.

For those who might not know, in March 2008, just as Gardiner MacDougall's vaunted men's team was making another run for the CIS University Cup, UNB axed the women's program to save money.

While it is understood men's hockey in Atlantic University Sport is much more of the alpha-male game than it is in the OUA — why, it's almost like the conference hasn't won a Vanier Cup since Undeclared was on the air — was wrongheaded and shortsighted. It was a bad look to come across as trying to up the competitive ante in the men's league by ditching the women's team. A couple years after this, Saint Mary's tried the same thing and the backlash was so swift that it reversed itself.

Beyond the public shaming, it was wrong times 10 to the 12th power since

On the former count, as I understand it the mandate of Canadian Interuniversity Sport is to give student-athletes an outlet to play competitively. People talk about trying to raise the profile of CIS — and I like to flatter myself by believing I am on the right side of the puck in that struggle — but ultimately, that is what it is about. Women's hockey is much more under that umbrella than men's hockey. For male players, CIS typically becomes an option after doors close, if sometimes only albeit temporarily, at the topmost professional levels, i.e., the NHL and the American Hockey League.

The female players are usually more intent on playing CIS and becoming part of a community. At least that was what I argued eight years ago. In hindsight, it seems a little condescending to say that. There is also some nascent women's pro hockey with the CWHL and NWHL slowly building.

It was also shortsighted to cut a growth sport, where a goodly portion of the roster might hail from the university's surrounding region. When SMU tried to cut women's hockey, it bore noting that team, per capita, was drawing more players from Atlantic Canada than the much more expensive football team. (Laugh line: based on the past couple seasons' standings, it looks like Saint Mary's did scrap football.)

The bottom line is you cannot build up the men's team by outright eliminating the other. It is great that Canadian university hockey is now at a level where no one should be shocked that the Carleton Ravens defeated the AHL's Binghamton Senators in a preseason affray, but equal opportunity is a thing. Because it is 2016. And definitely, UNB probably realizes that now, since hindsight is 20/20.

A big stick tap to Sylvia Bryson and her support network for seeing this through. No doubt she probably had some backlash about her fight.

Moncton and St. Thomas tied for second in AUS women's hockey with identical .667 point percentages. Obviously (move sarcasm detector to on position) this just proves it's impossible for a quality university in New Brunswick to afford a women's hockey team that is competitive in its conference. Those schools must be much bigger institutions than UNB, especially St. Thomas.

Women's hockey: Thumbs-down to UNB (March 2008)
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  1. Neate, we're just going to have to agree to disagree.
    It is ALL about the money. UNB is not swimming in donor money - that's one reason why they cut varsity football back in 1980 so that they could afford the rest of their varsity sports. UNB made choices back in the day, tough choices, and women's hockey was not the only sport demoted to club level. Could they have handled it better? Certainly. But just because they were ham-fisted about the process doesn't mean they made the right budgetary decision at the time.
    Women's hockey is expensive. Very expensive.
    UdeM does NOT have CIS men's volleyball or men's or women's basketball, let alone football. Neither does St. Thomas. Actually, STU only competes at the CIS level in men's and women's hockey and cross-country running. That's how they can afford women's hockey.

  2. To be clear, 'wrong' and 'wrongheaded' might not be one and the same. They did what they had to do, but the thinking behind it was wrong.

    If it's all about the money, though, why is that savings, and this goes for a lot of things with the public purse, ALWAYS made up by taking away things that benefit women? I know we're not for that.

    University sport is a student activity. Men's hockey is very expensive, too, although participation is subsidized by players having their ed packages. As a student activity, that means schools are obliged to offer female and male teams where it's practical ... that's why we have men's football and women's rugby. The fact there are a few schools with only men's hockey teams (UPEI, UQTR, Lakehead) doesn't justify others doing it.

    Anyway, I know every school has challenges. I guess my point is they should start thinking, hey, maybe showing support for our women's hockey team impresses donors. Again, I'm colored by my experience, though, my sister plays hockey, my mum coached it and I happened to go to a university that established a women's varsity hockey team in the 1970s.