On a late September evening at Wickwire Field, the Dalhousie University Tigers men’s soccer team competes against the University of New Brunswick Reds. The game is scoreless so far, but Dal will go on to win 2-1, thanks, in large part, to a strong defensive line.
In the middle of the pitch, Jeff Arkin’s eyes rarely leave the centre of play. His arms gesture to the other Dal defenders, signaling them to either move up to trap a UNB player offside, or retreat to wall off their own goal. At six foot five inches and a senior member of the squad, Arkin is a commanding presence on the field. As the game heats up, and UNB presses for a goal, he’s vocal, calling out to his teammates and stepping in for crunching tackles to turn the play around.
But last year, Arkin was missing from the Tigers lineup.
Finishing his undergraduate degree in geology in 2018, Arkin took a year off. Now in Dalhousie’s challenging MBA program, he’s back on the pitch, staving off attacks and setting up plays.
Arkin didn’t start out as a soccer player. After playing AA hockey while at Dalhousie studying kinesiology, he changed programs into geology — and changed sports.
“I started playing recreational soccer again, just for something to do, and was talking to [Tigers head coach] Pat [Nearing]. He said I should come out to tryouts.”
Arkin’s size and skill winning tackles won him a spot on the team in 2015. Twenty-one years old at the time, he was a little out of place as a rookie on a squad where most players were younger than him.
“He had the tools and we saw the potential,” says Nearing, who coached Arkin in his youth days playing minor soccer in Bedford.
Arkin became an anchor on the defensive line after seasons of earning his place. He remembers in his first year, scoring a goal on his own net — a defender’s worst nightmare —against the Saint Mary’s University Huskies. Right after, his goalkeeper at the time came up to him, and encouraged him to keep working. They needed him now more than ever, Arkin remembers him saying.
Then in 2018, Arkin graduated and headed north, far away from soccer practices at Wickwire.
He spent a year in northern Labrador, testing out his geology degree on a mining exploration team looking for gold. He didn’t touch a soccer ball once, but kept Nearing in the loop about his plans: a master’s degree that might involve a return to Dal.
Marking his place
Arkin came back to Dalhousie in September and quickly settled back into his place on the team, scoring the game-winning goal against the Université de Moncton Aigles Bleus on Sept. 6.
“My role now has shifted to being knowledgeable about commanding the backline,” Arkin says, who plays centre-back.
In soccer, the centre-back position is a key last line of defence before opposing attackers reach the goal. The centre-back also plays a role in watching the play unfold up the field and reacting to position their defenders accordingly.
Nearing says that Arkin’s maturity has been a big asset to the team. He’s seen Arkin mentor younger players, and take on extra responsibilities like putting the team’s apparel order together and planning their food drive in the winter.
“He’s been a leader in the dressing room as well as on the field,” says Nearing.
And that’s while balancing a full-time MBA program with a demanding varsity athletics schedule. It’s meant sacrificing practice time and some games — Arkin had to miss the team’s away game in Prince Edward Island on Sept. 29, for example — and adjusting to post-undergraduate life.
“I don’t want to say your undergrad isn’t as important,” says Arkin, “but now the stakes are much higher. Pat and the coaching staff are very understanding of that.”
Nearing says it’s an easy decision: he’d rather have players miss practices or games to be successful in academics, and he knows Arkin can balance it all out. After all, he’s been doing it for years.
“People have to make their way through to become leaders and Jeff’s done that. He’s put his time in, that’s for sure.”