The University of Manitoba spent two years getting ready to host the U Sports Men’s Volleyball Championship for the first time in the school’s history.
This weekend was supposed to be a perfect sendoff for longtime Manitoba Bisons head coach Garth Pischke, who is retiring after 38 seasons at the helm. The stage was also set for U Sports Player of the Year and Steinbach native Eric Loeppky, a fourth-year outside hitter with the No. 1-ranked Trinity Western Spartans, to cap off his university career by winning a national championship in his home province before he turned pro.
But as you probably already know, like seemingly every other major sporting event around the world, the plug was pulled on the tournament — and rightfully so.
U Sports and the U of M announced Thursday morning the tournament, set to kick off Friday at Investors Group Athletic Centre and run through Sunday, would go ahead as planned. In the afternoon, plans changed. They announced the games would be played, but only team members and essential staff would be in attendance due to the evolving global situation regarding the coronavirus (COVID-19).
However, that plan didn’t last for long. Around 9 p.m. Thursday the eight teams were informed the tournament had been cancelled. The seven visiting programs began making their way home as early as Friday morning.
The U Sports Women’s Volleyball Championship in Calgary, women’s hockey nationals at the University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown, and the men’s hockey nationals at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S., all suffered the same fate.
The hockey championships were the first to get the axe, as their officials are sanctioned by Hockey Canada. Once Hockey Canada made the decision to cancel all of their sanctioned events late Thursday, U Sports knew they had to follow suit.
"We’ve got a chief medical officer and we’ve been working very closely with each of our host committees across Canada and they all have chief medical officers and medical teams," said U Sports chief sport officer Lisette Johnson-Stapley in a phone interview.
"We just continuously, probably hourly, were communicating with each other about what is the federal, or the public health of Canada’s restrictions, measures or recommendations... When you make decisions during a crisis, you look at what’s going on in society and what are other organizations similar to us doing. So, once Hockey Canada made that statement, we felt that we had to come back together. We have a crisis management team and we’ve been meeting a couple times daily. We determined at that time it was time to also shut down volleyball."
Although Pischke didn’t get the ending he deserved, he said this week doesn’t put a damper on his career. Instead, he’s more concerned about players and the people behind the scenes who organized the event. The Bisons were scheduled to play Trinity Western at 6:30 p.m. Friday.
"It was a terrible day. A very emotional day and really tough to deal with for the players and not just on our team, but all the teams that were here and had earned a right to be here and fight for a national championship," Pischke said Friday afternoon.
"We knew it was going to be a sellout Friday night and then all of a sudden halfway through the day it was OK, we’re still going to play, but there’s going to be nobody in the stands, including no family or friends or anything like that. So, that knocked you down a few notches. And then you get the news late at night it was a no-go completely. Just terrible news for all the players. You certainly understand the reason for it, but it still doesn’t take the sting away from all the time in the gym and preparing for this."
The pain in the voice of Gene Muller, the U of M’s director of athletics and recreation, in a phone interview Friday morning was evident. He said the financial impact of the cancellation is something they haven’t had time to think about yet.
"It’s hugely disappointing. Our staff has been fantastic. We had set out to run a really high-quality event and we were on track for that," Muller said.
"We had an online ticketing campaign and we had sold many tickets already. The hype was building for us. Volleyball is such a marquee sport and it’s such a legacy sport for us here given Garth Pischke’s involvement and his retirement after 38 seasons. We wanted to give him a good send-off. We wanted to do something special for the players... There were just countless hours from our staff who were doing this job over and above our regular operations. It’s just a huge disappointment because we were going to do it and do it very well."
Next year’s men’s volleyball championships are scheduled to be held in Brandon. Johnson-Stapley was asked if there’s a chance the U of M would get a shot at hosting in 2022.
"At this point, it’s for consideration. We’ve got members and a board of directors that would have to review it. But, we feel so deeply sorry for all the student-athletes, coaches, officials, the fans, everybody, especially the host committees, because they’ve been working at it for two years and the financial impact will be painful as well," Johnson-Stapley said.
"I’m not entirely sure, but it’s important for us to work with our institutions and our hosts to make sure we can help them in the best way possible. This is unprecedented, so there are all kinds of different questions to be answered."
While Pischke will no longer be standing on the sidelines at IGAC, he hopes he can help the school earn another chance at hosting the nationals.
"I would love to be involved in putting it together. I think it would be an easy decision for us to get that," Pischke said.
"I know certainly all the work and effort that went into this to get it ready would be a lot easier to do it a second time around now that everything’s been in place. I think it’s a huge undertaking and I think the fact we’re a few steps ahead of the game right now by knowing everything, we’d probably have all the same people in place, so in my mind, it would be an easy choice."
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.