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On top of its game at 50

Manitoba High Schools Athletic Association celebrates a half-century of organizing young athletes

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It was pretty sophisticated and glamorous to be the first treasurer of the Manitoba High Schools Athletic Association, sitting in the corporate luxury box to watch the first provincial track and field championships at the University of Manitoba 50 years ago.

As if.

"The first cheque I wrote was for a bag of lime to line the track," laughed Frank McKinnon, retired now after 28 years as principal of Carman Collegiate. And he did the lining himself.

Back when McKinnon was involved with people such as Kas Vidruk and Dr. Frank Kennedy in getting the MHSAA off the ground, he was a young principal -- an exceptionally young principal -- at Hamiota Collegiate. His girls' basketball team would come into Winnipeg back when there was none of this modern-day competition by population.

Hamiota reached the finals four straight years, and the girls defeated huge city schools twice to win the nationals.

Ask McKinnon to reminisce and he'll probably be glad to spin David-and-Goliath basketball stories for you about back in the day, especially if you're from a really huge city high school.

The MHSAA is officially 50 years old Tuesday, and the association will name its athletes and teams of the decade and the half-century.

Morris Glimcher has been with the MHSAA for the past 36 years as executive director, coming straight out of St. John's High School and the University of Manitoba. Glimcher has always been the guy who was the team manager, chuckling that it's led to a pretty good career, not to mention a great parking spot in the Sport Manitoba lot.

Prior to 1962, "it was the Manitoba Secondary Schools Athletic Association. A group of basketball people would organize a championship, a group of track people would organize a championship," he said.

But there was no structure. There were storied teams such as the Flin Flon Kopper Kweens girls' basketball teams from Hapnot Collegiate who rivalled the Montreal Canadiens for dominating their sport in the 1950s. But there really wasn't an organization until 1962.

The MHSAA started with football, basketball, track and badminton. It wasn't until the 1970s that it started splitting up the competition by the size of a school's enrolment.

No hockey back then.

"Volleyball wasn't like it is today," McKinnon recalled. "We might have had a bit of soccer. We started it in Birtle, then down in the Virden area."

The 1970s is when the MHSAA limited varsity participation to four years, said Glimcher, though that can be appealed if a year is lost to injury or illness. But gone are the days when students would hang around long enough to play some sports, usually football, then drop out, get a job and come back to school in the fall, year after year.

The MHSAA runs provincial championships in 11 sports, boys and girls, four population ranges, and oversees eligibility and regulations for other activities such as football.

But one thing hasn't changed, declared Glimcher.

"Hartney is treated the same as Winnipeg," he said.

A shoe company -- he won't name it -- wanted to give shoes to the AAAA champions, but the MHSAA said no -- all the champions or none.

Now, the young athletes often have highly skilled outside coaches, about 17,000 students play one or more varsity sports, the top student-athletes somewhat realistically dream about some form of financial aid if they play university sports, and televised provincial finals in boys and girls basketball and volleyball pack the Investors Group or Duckworth Centre gyms each year.

"In volleyball, the last dozen years have been phenomenal," Glimcher said.

Back in 1991, a few high schools thought it would be cool to offer hockey to students who found competitive-level hockey too expensive and with too much travel.

That idea worked out well.

"It started really taking off in '97, '98," Glimcher said, with more high schools starting teams every year. Those provincials draw pretty huge crowds, too.

McKinnon remembers when Carman Collegiate started hockey.

"We had high school hockey, and we had Mr. Belfour."

That would be a junior varsity goalie named Ed Belfour, before he played junior and NCAA and NHL hockey and entered the Hockey Hall of Fame. Carman reached the provincial finals, losing 3-2 in a fifth game. "There were 1,500 people in the Winkler Arena," McKinnon recalled.

He said Belfour would keep in shape for hockey by doing triathlons and riding his bike to Roseisle and back, the same Roseisle whose ski hills attract hundreds of high school students each October for the provincial cross-country championships.

Ann Sisler came out of the U of M and four years of Bison volleyball in 1973 to teach at Pinawa Collegiate and never left.

"It was my life, and I loved every minute of it," said Sisler, who has since retired from teaching but still drives all over eastern Manitoba to referee school sports.

"It's leaps and bounds from where it was then. Coaching has improved immensely. You coached with what you knew; now, there's so many clinics" and so many outside coaches helping the teachers, Sisler said.

On the other hand, there are far more demands on time for today's students, and outside groups are competing for gym time, reducing practice time, she said.

But in Pinawa, students have always been given the time to do everything, Sisler said. "In a small school, we make it work. Half of them are in the band or take part in the school play."

"Today, school sports has grown so big, and it's such a big part of school education," McKinnon said, emphasizing that bands and arts have grown, too. "A good athletic program or a good choral program is such an asset."

Performing arts is a touchy subject for some educators. Glimcher's voice-mail message has its famous or infamous "High school athletics -- the other half of education," which he acknowledges can ruffle music and arts teachers and led to a cease-and-desist letter from the Manitoba Teachers' Society 25 years ago, which he ignored.

"By far, it's the largest co-curricular activity in the province," Glimcher said. "You're not going to say 'one-third of education.' "

Both McKinnon and Sisler said there have been big changes over the decades in how girls are treated as student-athletes. There was a day when they may not have been as respected as boys or treated as their equals.

Sisler has seen especially great improvement from girls on First Nations teams in eastern Manitoba.

"I've seen a difference in girls' participation in those schools. Their self-confidence has grown."

Back in 1993, the MHSAA commissioned a study that found varsity athletes performed better academically than the student body as a whole and had fewer disciplinary problems. The MHSAA doesn't have the money to do another study, said Glimcher, but if you're a grad student looking for a thesis topic, he's at 925-5641.

 

nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca

A multi-sport hub

 

-- The Manitoba High Schools Athletic Association holds provincial championships in golf, soccer, cross-country running, volleyball, curling, basketball, badminton, baseball, track and field, fastball and hockey. It handles eligibility and other regulations for about 17,000 high school students who play one or more varsity sports each year.

-- Football runs its own championships.

-- Some sports aren't covered, such as wrestling, ultimate and tennis.

-- Rugby and lacrosse hope to join, said MHSAA executive director Morris Glimcher.

-- A landmark 2006 human rights case involving high school hockey led to girls being eligible to try out for boys' high school teams, even if the school had a girls' team in that sport. Boys cannot try out for girls' teams, a rule yet to be challenged.

-- Since 2006, only once has a girl used that ruling to play on a boys' team. It was curling, and the skip was her boyfriend, said Glimcher, who won't name the school.

The MHSAA is at www.mhsaa.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 23, 2012 B1

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