For athletes and coaches, COVID-19 has literally been a game-changer.
Precautions being taken to ‘flatten the curve’ and limit the spread of the novel coronavirus during a pandemic have been unlike anything any of us have seen. I understand that keeping COVID-19 from overwhelming our health-care system is life or death, and has to take precedence over awarding hockey trophies and basketball banners.
But as someone who’s covered Nanaimo sports for more than 15 years, I can’t help but feel disappointment for the athletes whose seasons came to a sudden end last week. The Nanaimo Clippers had won one playoff series and were championship contenders. The VIU Mariners women’s basketball team was a week away from hosting nationals in their home gym. Nanaimo had peewee and midget hockey teams set to skate into Tier 1 provincial championship tournaments. Every one of those seasons now ends without the sort of resolution that the playoffs are supposed to bring. For graduating players, there is no next season, not in Nanaimo, anyway.
Sports matter more than we might think. I’ve covered enough games to see how participation and inclusion and lessons about sportsmanship and dedication change the course of lives. I’ve seen how teams can capture the imagination of fans and build civic pride. I’ve seen those indelible moments in arenas and gymnasiums and sensed how much they’ve meant.
The thing is, a sports season rarely ends with a championship. It’s more common that a team doesn’t end its season with a victory celebration, and the coach or captain, in a sombre corridor, laments what went wrong and promises that they’ll get ’em next year.
In the playoffs you win or lose, by the rules of the game. That’s how it’s supposed to be, that’s what’s different this time, and that’s why COVID-19 is a game-changer: the rules went out the window. The Clippers, who won all four of their playoffs game, are hanging up their skates for 2019-20. The Mariners, 17-1 in the regular season and 2-0 in the playoffs, don’t get to try for the program’s first national medal in 22 years. These outcomes are supposed to get decided on the ice and on the court, but this year they didn’t.
I heard Clippers coach Darren Naylor telling the team’s play-by-play man that it feels like the season ends with a question that will never get answered.
Mariners basketball coach Tony Bryce told me he’s had to give a lot of tough speeches, but never one like he gave last week. Going from denial to shock over a span of a few hours had him at a loss for words.
“I just felt like something special was about to take place and to never know is going to be a tough one to live with,” he said.
Sometimes when we lose, we have to tip our hat to the other team. This time, the opposition was one we hadn’t faced before and one we underestimated.
Coaches in Nanaimo are proud of their players. We as a community should be proud of the athletes who represented our city, and all that they achieved this season, and the things they will go on to achieve.
“It started as a difficult conversation and an emotional conversation,” said Bryce, recalling that last locker room talk. “And we finished with recognizing that we’re lucky to spend the time we do together and let’s never forget that.”