CALGARY - Canadian Interuniversity Sport has launched a women's hockey pilot project offering more scholarship money to see if it keeps athletic talent in the country.
Almost 4,000 Canadians are on NCAA rosters in the United States, including 400 female hockey players, according to new CIS chief executive officer Pierre Lafontaine.
In addition to tuition and fees, Canadian university women's hockey teams are now allowed to cover room and board. But they will operate under a financial cap limiting how many scholarships can be offered.
Lafontaine hopes the five-year Women's High Performance Hockey pilot project provides data which can be used to slow the flow of Canada's top student-athletes across the border.
To make it easier to return to the CIS from the NCAA, the rule requiring a Canadian athlete to sit out for a year if they switch was eliminated.
"If we offer scholarships, is it making a huge difference?" Lafontaine asked. "Is the scholarship the difference or is it something else? We'll have a better understanding of all of that within the pilot."
Lafontaine says the wheels were already in motion to make women's hockey a scholarship test case when he took over as CEO in January. It's also a sport that sees a significant exodus to the U.S.
Canada's under-22 women's team opened a three-game series against the U.S. in Calgary on Thursday.
Of the 22 players named to that team, 20 will play in the NCAA in 2014-15. One will play in the CIS for McGill University and one has yet to decide where she will play her post-secondary hockey.
High school athletes, and their parents, are often dazzled by the prospect of a "full-ride" scholarship to an NCAA school.
A New York Times article in 2008 reported the average annual female hockey scholarship at a Division 1 school to be $20,540. It's difficult for Canadian universities to compete for elite athletes like those on the under-22 women's hockey team.
While a school's reputation and location and the quality of the athletic and educational programs factor into an athlete's decision, money talks loudly.
Sweetening the scholarship package may get athletes to look closer at the CIS option. If it gets them on campus for a visit, that's when coaches can sell them on other qualities of the hockey team and the university.
"I think it's going to get more kids to take it seriously," University of Regina coach Sarah Hodges said. "The fact they can be offered full tuition and living expenses, it changes the game a whole lot.
"That's something we can offer now that we couldn't before. If we are able to get them here to visit and see what we offer, we're usually pretty successful."
"The intent would be that we would be able to keep some of the top players at home," York University women's coach Dan Church added.
"Of that top five per cent that's going to the NCAA, whatever the percentage is, we might be able to have some of those players playing at Canadian institutions."
The cap is 70 per cent of the total cost of tuition, school fees, room and board for 14 players. Each team's cap will be different because those costs differ from province to province.
A coach can offer a few players large scholarships, or spread the money around with "partial scholarships" to more players.
"There is a reporting mechanism put in place," Lafontaine said. "We want to make sure they don't break the cap.
"Your room and board, tuition and fees are $11,000 for example. I can't go and say 'You know what? I'm going to give you $14,000.'"
As an example, Hodges says a player's tuition and fees at the University of Regina over five years costs about $20,000. Add room and board and it jumps to between $50,000 and $60,000.
Hodges says giving a scholarship for the latter would be the exception rather than the rule.
"For the coaches, we're going to have to be pretty selective of about who they're offered to," she said. "If they're offered one of these in Canada, it's still pretty special."
All 33 CIS women's hockey teams can participate in the pilot project, but not all are doing so. The university, or the team, has to come up with the money to cover the increased cost of scholarships under the program.
An informal survey of women's hockey teams indicated 10 were either already using the pilot project as a recruiting tool or planned to do so, while 11 schools said they were not involved.
"Just because they've changed the rules doesn't mean the money pot is there," Church said.
Blayre Turnbull of Stellarton, N.S., is entering her senior year at the University of Wisconsin. Canada's under-22 assistant captain was recruited by Atlantic universities, but the NCAA was more financially attractive.
"Obviously they put some offers out on the table that I wasn't offered by CIS schools," Turnbull said. "Being offered full scholarships definitely has an effect. Why would someone want to pay for school when they have the option to get it for free?
Had room and board been covered by a CIS team, the forward said she would have given Canadian university hockey "more of a shot than I did."
"If the CIS has the opportunity to say 'hey, we have a full scholarship for you, come check out our school, we have a great academic program,' yeah, I would have looked into it," Turnbull said.
Calgary defenceman Brittney Fouracres is the lone CIS player on the team. She's entering her fourth year of chemical engineering studies at McGill, but she was also recruited by the NCAA.
"For me, the schooling was important and staying at home was important," Fouracres said.
"I know when girls are looking at NCCA or CIS, a lot of it does come down to the full ride. The whole idea that everything is paid for and your parents don't have to cover a thing, or you don't have to cover a thing, or no student loans, that's an attractive thing right now in this economy."