University women's hockey teams wrestle with scholarship pilot project

A pilot project allowing Canadian university women's hockey teams to offer more scholarship money to athletes has yet to show concrete evidence it stops top talent from going to the NCAA.

Starting in 2014, Canadian schools could offer "enhanced scholarships" to female hockey players covering tuition, fees, room and board, but still have to stay under a cap.

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NCAA schools were interested in University of Alberta forward Alex Poznikoff, who might have been a poster child for the pilot project if she wasn't already predisposed to playing for a Canadian university back in 2015.

The U Sports women's hockey player of the year in 2018-19 says the Pandas paying for her tuition and fees was one element among many in her decision to play in her hometown of Edmonton.

"I was definitely leaning towards Canada in the first place," Poznikoff told The Canadian Press.

"The scholarship definitely helped a lot in my decision, but it just kind of worked out that at home was the team I wanted."

The purpose of the women's hockey project was to provide data which could be used to slow the flow of Canada's top student-athletes to the United States.

At the time, almost 4,000 Canadians were on NCAA team rosters including 400 female hockey players, according to U Sports.

Canada's under-22 team, known as the national development team, is still dominated by NCAA players.

Twenty of 22 women on the 2014 team played for NCAA teams, and the ratio remained the same in 2018.

Out of the 41 women invited to the 2018 development team's summer camp, 39 played in the NCAA.

U Sports has extended the pilot to 2020-21 to gather more information on the impact of enhanced scholarship.

"There was never a reporting mechanism put in place to tell you the truth," U Sports chief sport officer Lisette Johnson-Stapley said.

"Now we're picking up the pieces and trying to move it forward. We're trying to figure out evaluation measures, key performance indicators to show they actually stayed in Canada for that reason."

A New York Times article in 2008 reported the average annual female hockey scholarship at a Division 1 school to be US$20,540.

"The NCAA makes it hard to turn offers down," Poznikoff acknowledged.

The average annual cost of attending a Canadian university is $19,500 for students who don't live at home, according to a 2018 report by MacLeans.ca.

But Canadian schools have a cap limiting the number and amount of athletic scholarships they can provide.

Lessening the scope of the pilot project was its voluntary participation and schools having to come up with the extra money.

So a "full ride" scholarship was not common.

"We've had three separate individuals in a five-year period that we've given that amount of money to, and some others who have gone over the historical tuition fees amount," Pandas head coach Howie Draper said.

"I feel being able to offer more funding made their decision more likely to come to the U of A. The money increases the probability although how much we don't know."

McGill head coach Peter Smith said the pilot project had little impact on his Martlets. He was already up against the cap covering tuition for as many players as he could.

"It's part of our culture, part of our philosophy at McGill that we feel everybody has value and we were giving everybody as much as we possibly could to them and it was all fairly equitable across the board," he explained.

OUA rules on athletic financial awards (AFAs) more restrictive than other conferences. Ontario schools can only offer full tuition — it was partial prior to 2014 — but not room and board like other conferences.

Ryerson coach Lisa Haley was still able to recruit Erika Crouse last year. Crouse had NCAA options but played for the Rams and was named the U Sports rookie of the year.

According to Haley's research, however, 162 of 279 Canadians playing for 35 NCAA Division 1 women's hockey last season came from Ontario.

"I think the intent of the pilot project was bold in nature in trying to keep our best players in Canada," Haley said.

"Five years is not long enough to see the significant change that people want to see. I still feel like it's been a very productive learning process. I think we can get it right moving forward."

But instead of swinging for the fence and pursuing a national-calibre player bound for the NCAA, Canadian teams often just spread a little more money between recruits who were staying in Canada anyway.

Poznikoff's teammate Autumn MacDougall told The Canadian Press what the Pandas were able to do for her financially made it less expensive for her to attend the University of Alberta than a school in her home province of Nova Scotia.

University of Regina coach Sarah Hodges did use the pilot project to swing for the fence.

"We only used one enhanced scholarship," Hodges said. "It was an athlete who was looking south and we wanted to keep her here. We covered 100 per cent — tuition, room and board.

"It's a pretty big fundraising commitment for one athlete. But when you get that good athlete, they bring more good athletes to your program."

Representation on the national development team indicates it's still difficult for Canadian universities to lure elite athletes away from the NCAA.

"There needs to be an identification process of all of our best players," Smith said.

"Maybe we have the top 40 players and those are the players we should target and try and keep at Canadian schools being coached by Canadian coaches.

"Maybe if you get a player off that top-40 list, then you can give them an enhanced AFA that doesn't have any affect on the rest of your cap for example."

A less measurable outcome of the pilot project is women are giving more consideration to Canadian schools when they choose where they want to play and pursue a degree.

"I think it allowed us to get in the conversation with more people than maybe we wouldn't have been able to get in otherwise," York University coach Dan Church said.

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