The recent establishment of Canadian domestic professional soccer and basketball leagues has given U Sports players a pathway to potential playing careers beyond university.
Both the Canadian Premier League in soccer and Canadian Elite Basketball League hold U Sports drafts in which university players can play summers in both leagues without losing their varsity eligibility. University of Victoria Vikes basketball star Diego Maffia played for the Vancouver Bandits of the CEBL this summer and Eric Lajeunesse of the UBC Thunderbirds did not look out of place, either, on the Starlight Stadium pitch over the summer with Pacific FC of the CPL.
U Sports players over the summer dotted the rosters of League1 B.C., Ontario and Quebec, part of the semi-professional chain below the CPL level. That included last season’s UVic points leader Javier Sagaste, defending Canada West Conference MVP, University of Northern B.C. Timberwolves player Michael Henman and Mount Royal University Cougars star David Schaefer of the League1 B.C. regular-season champion Victoria Highlanders.
As a sign of the evolving system, the UVic Vikes have six players with League1 experience on the roster heading into their 2023 Canada West Conference opening games Friday in Kamloops against defending U Sports national champion Thompson Rivers University WolfPack and Saturday in Kelowna against UBC-Okanagan.
“We want to double that number next year,” said UVic head coach Larry Stefanek.
“It’s an exciting time for our players. There is definitely a pathway to League1 and the CPL.”
The Vikes were 3-8-5 last season in Stefanek’s first year at the Vikes helm in taking over from veteran UVic mentor Bruce Wilson, who guided the Vikes for 34 years after his pro and international playing career in which he captained Canada in the 1986 World Cup.
“We will be in there battling every week to turn some of those draws from last year into W’s. It’s about the fine margins,” said Stefanek.
“Canada West is very competitive, but any given day anybody can beat anybody. That has to be our mindset.”
Returnees include Sagaste and six-foot-two North Vancouver brothers Fin and Archie Tugwell. Additions include former Reynolds Secondary striker Kaelan Cooke out of the Pacific Coast Soccer League-champion Victoria United and SFU-transfer Jordan McKinty, son of Canada-capped former Vancouver 86ers pro Doug McKinty. Another transfer is Salt Spring Island product and midfielder Jimmy Steel from UBC-Okanagan.
“We are full of energy, enthusiasm and technical ability. We will battle every week,” said Stefanek.
The Vikes, ranked No. 9 in Canada West, open at home next Friday against Trinity Western at Centennial Stadium.
CORNER KICKS: The Vikes women’s team opened the Canada West season last weekend on the road with a 2-1 loss to UBC-Okanagan and 6-1 victory over Thompson Rivers, the latter on an Emma Skalik hat-trick. Both those games were played on the Lower Mainland due to the forest fires in the Interior. The Vikes open at home Saturday at 1 p.m. at Centennial Stadium against the Mount Royal Cougars of Calgary.