Editor’s note: Since the circuit-breaker restrictions were lifted three weeks early, some Tigers teams have made plans to resume play.
With university teams throughout Nova Scotia not playing any games all season, there was finally relief in early February 2021: university teams got a taste of exhibition games.
In early February, the Dalhousie University Tigers, the Saint Mary’s University (SMU) Huskies and the Acadia University Axemen and Axewomen organized an exhibition schedule slated to last roughly five weeks. But on Feb. 26, Nova Scotia Public Health declared a circuit-breaker to counter recent COVID-19 case spikes in the Halifax area. As part of the measures, games were cancelled for four weeks and effectively killed the schedule.
Emily Holt, a third-year guard with the Dalhousie Tigers women’s basketball team, said she was excited to be playing games again, even for just a brief time.
“It was nice to play with all of our teammates, in one game on one team, because we had been practicing constantly against each other in scrimmages and drills. It was nice to have something all together again,” Holt said.
The feeling of relief touched many players such as forward Brett Crossley of Dal’s men’s hockey team.
“It’s a bit of a relief, honestly. Because as competitive people, and hockey in itself is a competitive sport, all you want to do is have a chance to compete. I think everyone was pretty excited,” said Crossley.
The opportunity to play
Players have been hit with the mental toll of having only practices without any games to prepare for.
“Eventually we developed a routine, but you can use competition as a bit of a measuring stick to justify all the work that you’ve put in. It’s nice to be able to see the results of all the work that you’ve done. Not having that was a bit of a struggle mentally,” Crossley said. “To have [games] back was big for us. It gave us a reason to push a little harder, even when we felt like the tank was empty. And that’s essentially from the mental side of things, that’s the boost that it gave us. It just gave us something to look forward to.”
Some players on the teams, including Talia Vydykhan on the women’s volleyball team, played their first games as Tigers in the two-week span. Intense practices, including plenty of intra-squad scrimmaging, helped her adjust to the university level well before playing her first match against another team.
“We trained and prepared this year as if we were expecting to play matches,” Vydykhan said, who learned about the exhibition schedule about a week before the team’s first game, much to her excitement. “Since we prepared so much, it felt very natural and good being out there. Not that it was easy, but I felt relaxed because of the preparation. It was almost like a practice.”
Expectations were low before the hockey team hit the ice. Dal had gone more than a year between games and was coming off an underwhelming record of eight wins and 22 losses in the 2019-2020 season. Crossley said the team rose to the occasion.
“I’d say we performed above expectations,” he said. “You can only expect so much when you go a full year without any games. But for that being our first outing in [that long], the team bought into our systems and worked at it. I think there was a little added motivation in there as well.”
When tighter COVID-19 restrictions hit, games came to a grinding halt. The games were providing teams with a much-needed boost in morale. Holt said the change in restrictions was demoralizing.
“The games have been going so well, but we have a few injuries right now. So it’ll be good to have some rest and we’re still going to keep training,” Holt said. “Ultimately, we knew this year would be different from normal years and we’re looking forward to next season. We’re going to try and keep our mental focus on next season and working towards something more concrete than this COVID season.”
After experiencing game action, Crossley said it was hard to take in the news of the restrictions. Dal was set to take on their cross-town rivals at SMU the day Nova Scotia announced circuit-breaker measures, adding salt to the wound.
“That was a tough pill to swallow, being that we were an hour or two away from the game. That one hurt a little extra. You’re so close to getting back to what you wanted to do,” said Crossley. “But obviously, there are more important things than playing the game. You got to take that into account and appreciate the fact that health and safety come first.”
Vydykhan said the shutdown took her by surprise. But no matter how short the season, with few other goals to pursue, the game represented a goal the team had been working toward all season.
“We had literally just gotten the green light to finally play, which we had worked so hard on,” she said. Like the hockey team, the volleyball team had a game scheduled the day restrictions were announced. “Having one game [against Acadia on Feb. 21] is better than none. I was excited to actually experience something close to a real game. It was hard to find motivation at practice and in the weight room this year when you know there was no outcome like in a game or something to work toward. We definitely were upset about the cancellations, but were very happy we got that one game.”
-With files from Luke Dyment