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Some Canadian athletes who cross the border to the NCAA come back

Ian Turner
The Ubyssey (University of British Columbia)

VANCOUVER (CUP) — Go to the States or stay close to home? Big Ten Conference or Canada West? Packed stadiums or parent-only crowds? A possible full-ride scholarship or a summer spent babysitting to pay tuition?

Such questions filled Megan Heise’s head when she was in Grade 12. As a top-flight field hockey recruit, she eventually narrowed her decision down to the University of Iowa or the University of Victoria.

Most of her college-bound teammates from Chilliwack, B.C. would go on to play at the U of V, but at 18 years old, Heise was seeking excitement – the kind that the island outpost just didn’t offer.

“I went [to Iowa] because I wanted the experience,” said Heise. “I didn’t want to pass up the experience and not see what it was like, because I’ve always been big into athletics. Everybody there is super enthusiastic about sports and that is the kind of atmosphere I wanted to be a part of.”

An arranged visit to Iowa’s athletic department proved to be the tipping point for Heise.

“I got to go to an Iowa vs. Iowa State football game, which was the most unreal thing I’ve ever seen in my life. Since they don’t have professional sports in Iowa, college football is the way of life,” explained Heise. “It was a big school rivalry. I remember people running through the streets saying, ‘We’re going to beat State.’

“I’d been to UBC games and there was barely anyone in the stands. In the States, you’re a celebrity. We got first-class treatment on my initial visit. It was unreal. Everything was Iowa, Iowa, Iowa. It was like a college movie and I wanted to have it.”

A similar sentiment drove former UBC baseball pitcher Jordan Anderson down south to Central Arizona College from his Burlington, Ont. high school.

“I knew I didn’t want to stay in Canada because I wanted to play baseball at a competitive school … I really had no desire to stay in Canada. One still has that mentality that you have to go to the States to get noticed,” Anderson said.

“When I came down here, we had four or five guys that were drafted right out of high school, which is a lot more than most Division 1 schools. I wanted to play professional baseball.”

Anderson’s professional aspirations wore his body out, however. At Arizona, he threw every day as part of his four-and-a-half hour daily training regimen. The intensity was too much for his arm, which lead to a season-ending injury. With his dreams of reaching the big leagues seemingly all but over, he had a change of heart.

“I went to UBC because, at that point, I knew I really didn’t have a shot at going on to play professionally and UBC is a great academic school,” explained Anderson. “I knew I needed to get some sort of education and even then, if something went right, I would have still had a shot to go on and play professionally. [UBC] had two guys drafted last year.”

But Anderson found baseball training at UBC to be no less demanding than at Arizona. After getting injured again while with the Thunderbirds, he opted to hang up his mitt for good.

Anderson’s experience, where teams from both the U.S. and Canada train equally rigorously, was the exception amongst those interviewed.

Kelly Kurisu, a current UBC Thunderbirds offensive lineman, found the athletic routine far more demanding down south while playing at Western Washington University, before the program was cancelled because of the multimillion-dollar financial burden of fielding a Division II football team.

He explained that in the NCAA, with big scholarships come a greater responsibility to the team.

“They do expect you to be a lot more involved with the football program. Since they’re giving you money, they can expect that. Up here, a lot of the guys on the team aren’t getting any money, so the coaches are more lax, saying, ‘Well, okay, you don’t exactly have to do this. You don’t have to come to that’,” Kurisu said.

“[In the States they say] ‘You’re here at this time. You’ve got to do this at this time. It doesn’t matter what else is going on. We’re paying you’.”

Kurisu estimated UBC football trains about 90 minutes less per day than WWU’s now-defunct program did.

During UBC men’s hockey forward Tyler Ruel’s freshman year at Wayne State, the school chose to end funding for the ice hockey team because of the program’s high financial costs. Without a palatable scholarship offer, Ruel came back to Canada, where he enrolled at UBC.

“The education you get at UBC, I feel, is a lot better than what you get at most universities in the U.S. I feel there is definitely more of an emphasis on academics here,” Ruel said.

“I find that at UBC you have to earn your grades a little bit more. I feel some of the classes down there could not really be a school class.”

For Heise, it was a similar experience of slack academics.

“[The education system at the University of Iowa] was just pointless. I’d go sit there and twiddle my thumbs and I never had any schoolwork. On my first paper at Iowa, I got an A+ on it and I was like, ‘Oh, a 100-person class and my T.A. just told me I got the top mark in the class.’ That was scary.”

Anderson, perhaps, had the easiest time of the group.

“I was told what was going to be on my exam beforehand. I’m sure other students weren’t told, but I think that comes down to a school decision,” he said. “If the school wants to allow that to happen, then they can allow that to happen. I highly doubt that’s going on at Stanford.”   

Most others said they were pushed through the academic requirements to ensure they meet the NCAA’s academic criteria to be eligible to play. The easier academic requirements of schools that put a greater emphasis on athletics are not entirely due to the NCAA. Among one of the top 30 universities, UBC has a higher reputation academically than many schools in America. But the large monetary sums they spend on fielding teams also factor into their less academically rigorous programs.

With large budgets, attendance minimums and professional-calibre facilities, the coaches are under a lot of pressure to justify their costs, which can quickly suck the fun out of the sport for eager individuals.

After one year at Virginia’s West Liberty University, backup Thunderbird quarterback Ryley Wright went north in search of a football program with a team-first mentality.

“If you go down there, say something happens to your arm or shoulder and you’re out for training camp, or you might have been a second-string guy and they might have been hyping you up, as soon as you’re hurt or out and you’re not in their plan, you’re not in their plans,” Wright said.

“I don’t want to bash what happened down there, but it’s a business. If you’re not doing exactly what they say, you’re kind of a wash off. When I came up here, I instantly felt that the coaches cared. That was big for me. I wanted to play for someone who was big on character and who also wanted to have a relationship with you off the field.”

Fitting into a business plan is tough. Current UBC basketball guard Doug Plumb found that out as a young 17-year-old in Minnesota.

When Plumb’s father went to the U.S. for employment, Plumb tagged along in the hope of elevating his game. After making the varsity team in Grade 10, he chose to play collegiate ball in the States, thinking, “It was America or bust.”

At Minnesota State University, he didn’t have much opportunity, as he was a 17-year-old on a team comprised of 23-year-olds, many of whom were considered top Division II players. Without playing time and with most of his family still in Pitt Meadows, B.C., Plumb wanted to come home because he had lost his confidence.

“It seems like a business down there,” he said.

“Your coach will recruit over you if he sees something he doesn’t like. If you lose your confidence because you’re not getting playing time, you don’t have the support network to stay positive because your family isn’t in town.”

After a year at Minnesota State, Plumb came north again and played two years for the University of the Fraser Valley Cascades before transferring to UBC.

Like Plumb, Anderson sees the benefits of the NCAA: Increased exposure – some games are aired on local channels – and better competition.

Ruel was more ambivalent.

“I’m an NCAA guy, so I’m very pro-NCAA,” Ruel said. “I really think it would get the UBC name out there. You know, if you’re playing down south, there’s a lot more coverage on TV of college hockey, especially Division I. Division III, I’d feel a little bit more skeptical about.”

But he said that some of his current teammates wouldn’t be able to play NCAA hockey because, unlike the CIS, individuals who played junior hockey cannot subsequently play in the NCAA.

“It’d suck to see my teammates not being able to continue their education.”

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