The CIS officially announced a bylaw change Tuesday that had been quietly brewing for months.
In a move that alters the landscape of recruiting and athlete movement, the CIS — trying to position itself further as an attractive alternative for Canadians who lust for the NCAA — announced Canadian student-athletes will no longer have to sit out a year if they transfer from the NCAA back home. Previously an athlete would have to sit out 365 days from the date of their last competition in the NCAA before they became eligible back in Canada.
The move will be largely celebrated among CIS followers, who will no doubt see the merit in giving athletes more freedom and more incentive to play in Canada should the NCAA dream not be as glowing and rosy as they originally thought.
And make no mistake, those are the kids this rule affects the most. The hockey or basketball prodigy who chooses to go to Michigan or Kansas on full rides isn’t likely to be coming back to Canada anytime soon. But the athlete who, merely upon hearing the letters ‘NCAA’, signs on to a scholarship opportunity down south and shortly after finds out that Western Missouri Tech isn’t all it was cracked up to be? Those are the ones who will benefit from getting a do-over on their decisions, choices that are made at a young age when a kid can be forgiven for perhaps not always selecting the best route.
That’s not to say that every Canada-to-NCAA decision is a wrongheaded one, of course. Far from it. But it happens time and time again: A Canadian heads south because of what the NCAA ideal means and finds out after — whether its team chemistry, university culture, coaching philosophy or academics — that the NCAA isn’t always head-and-shoulders above the opportunities in their homeland.
Basketball and women’s volleyball will be the sports where you will see the most movement. Canada is sending a slew of basketball players south, many before they even reach university age, and not all of those players are in the Andrew Wiggins, Tyler Ennis, Natalie Achonwa echelon. Winnipeggers Cam Hornby and Isaac Ansah both went to the States (Ansah started at a prep school) before finishing their university playing days in the CIS.
In women’s volleyball, there will likely be more players than any other sport taking advantage of the bylaw (simply because of how many players Canada churns out), but the impact is not as dramatic simply because of the timing of scheduling. The NCAA women’s season ends for many teams in November while the CIS season is only in its second month at that point, meaning a player could conceivably have wrapped an NCAA Division I season one year and still made an impact on a CIS team the following year. That type of overlay doesn’t exist in other sports.
Each Manitoba school, in the past five to seven years, has had at least one example of a player transferring out of Division I back home: Brandon had Ashley Creighton transfer after two years at Pitt; Winnipeg briefly welcomed Erika Buchanan after a season at Montana and, most recently, Taylor Pischke returned home to play for Manitoba after a season at Cal-Santa Barbara.
The question arises as to how much of a precedent is set with the move. While the CIS finally loosened its vice grip on penalizing athletes who want to go NCAA to CIS, it’s unlikely it will be pursuing wiping the transfer penalty off the board entirely any time soon. Athletes who want to spend one year at Saint Mary’s and then decide Thompson Rivers is a better fit (with a stop at Lakehead in between), will still be on the sidelines for a year. And that’s unlikely to change with coaches loath to see players up and leave to a potential rival or future opponent without so much as a slight barricade in their way.
Tuesday’s announcement gives more freedom to young athletes and more hope for Canadian coaches and programs that the athletes they may have unsuccessfully pursued once upon a time will one day turn tail and come back to Canada. What it does not address — and no one initiative ever will — are the sources of these decisions that lead athletes to leave Canada in the first place.
The talent drain to the States is real and it will never go away, but that doesn’t have to be a reason for lament. Canadian schools — and the CIS as a whole — have improved greatly over the past 15 years at dressing their operations up in a more professional manner and thereby increasing the attractiveness of choosing Canada. Financial promises and bright lights of the big time will always lure the finest athletes the NCAA’s way.
Canada can address a number of things philosophically in its institutions, but perception, too, goes a long way. The process of turning CIS sports into an event, rather than an extra-curricular activity will be an ongoing battle, but the more individual members and the CIS do to increase their presence, their identity and their name recognition, the more likely we’ll be closer to a time when Canadian student-athletes don’t stop somewhere else on their way home.