From March Madness to the Frozen Four, sports fans often follow tournaments in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA)—the organization in charge of American college sports—as fiercely as they follow professional leagues, keeping track of draft prospects and filling up 100,000–seat stadiums. But U SPORTS, the Canadian university sports governing body, is significantly less popular. Despite this disadvantage, McGill student athletes have found success both in professional leagues and on the national stage.
The smaller size of U SPORTS as a league compared to the NCAA means that schools generate less revenue through their sports teams, leaving them with fewer resources to spend on athletics. McGill alumna and former Martlet basketball player Alex Kiss-Rusk played one season in the NCAA with Virginia Tech before transferring to McGill and noted the drawbacks of playing in a smaller league.
“The NCAA has money and resources that Canadian schools simply cannot match,” Kiss-Rusk wrote in an email to The McGill Tribune. “The vast majority of the money coming into these programs [is] generated by the schools’ football teams [….] The money [the football team] produces has allowed many schools to flourish in all sports.”
Even with the disparity in resources, Kiss-Rusk believes that the cross-border programs are not as different as some may think.
“Although the competition in the NCAA is obviously superior, […] I can’t say [that] there are tremendous differences,” Kiss-Rusk wrote. “Playing at McGill, I felt as though academics were held [to] a higher standard. But, as for my on-court experience, it was very similar.”
Kiss-Rusk is now playing for BC Pharmaserv Marburg in the Deutsche-Basketball-Bundesliga (DBBL), a German women’s basketball league. She is not the only McGill alumnus to go pro: Laurent Duvernay-Tardif (M.D ‘18) is a guard for the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs. Additionally, McGill graduates, including women’s hockey gold medalists Charline Labonté and Kim St-Pierre, have triumphed at the Olympics. McGill’s alumni network boasts 28 Olympic medalists, and there has not been an Olympic Games since 1908 without a McGill graduate competing.
Martlet Hockey Assistant Coach and program alumna Alyssa Cecere won three national championships with the Martlets and one Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) championship with the Montréal Stars (later renamed Les Canadiennes de Montréal). She found that her experiences at university prepared her to compete with the Stars.
“When I played at McGill [we had] high-paced practices, which transferred over to our games,” Cecere said. “With the Stars, it was a bit of a higher pace.”
In addition to the game itself, Cecere said that McGill’s travel schedule transferred well to that of the Stars. As a coach, she now tries to instill a culture of professionalism in her players to prepare them for the workplace, whether that be a hockey rink or not.
Kiss-Rusk has a similar pride in the broader skills McGill taught her, which she believes are crucial to her professional career.
“Understanding how to be a leader on a team is very important [when] playing professionally and is certainly something I learned while playing at McGill,” Kiss-Rusk wrote. “When you’re on a professional team, you are often joining a new group every year. You’re stepping into an important role on the court, so finding a way to lead a new group that doesn’t know you and doesn’t trust you yet is a challenge.”
For many McGill athletes, going pro isn’t the initial or ultimate goal. While NCAA athletes can often start their studies having already been drafted, a professional career was not in Cecere’s plans until her final year at McGill.
“It’s something that you think about as you keep going on, but it wasn’t something I necessarily thought, ‘That’s what I’m definitely going to do,’” Cecere said. “[My] fifth year was kind of like, ‘Well, you know what, I’m not done playing yet.’”
Kiss-Rusk went through a similar process.
“[Going pro] really only manifested itself as an option to me after my fourth year, when we won the national championship,” Kiss-Rusk wrote. “I began getting attention from the [Canadian] Senior Women’s National Team, and my time with them that summer solidified my decision to go pro after university.”
Other players, like Martlet ice hockey alumna Mélodie Daoust, managed to play professionally while still at McGill. She played one game with the Stars during her first year as a Martlet and competed for Team Canada at the 2014 Sochi Olympics in her third year, winning a gold medal. In Daoust’s final year, goalie Tricia Déguire joined the Martlets and soon also began attracting national attention. Déguire, now a fourth-year, has been invited to three Hockey Canada training camps and played at the Nations Cup in Germany. She credits the mentorship of teammate Daoust and assistant coach Marie-Philip Poulin, one of Canada’s most decorated active hockey players, with helping her develop the drive that has brought her this far.
“The thing [Daoust] always told me is to be the best I can be,” Déguire said. “She was always [at her] best when she was going on the ice, so she tried to translate that to me [….] [Poulin] says ‘Just continue to work as hard as you can. Push it through and give it [your] all, so that you can [succeed] after [your] university career.’”
Déguire, Kiss-Rusk, and Cecere, as well as other McGill alumni who are now professional athletes, benefited from McGill Athletics’ support system, which includes mental health support, physiotherapy, and tutoring, among other services. But going pro is, unavoidably, a trial by fire. Whether an athlete is in a North American league or a European league or with a national team, they find themselves playing with more athletic teammates and against stronger opponents than at the university level.
“The speed of the game [with the national team] is a bit quicker,” said Déguire. “The players […] are all strong, good, big players, compared to [the university] team [whose players are] sometimes a bit smaller and weaker.”
In addition to the game itself, athletes find themselves in an entirely new situation, outside of the common network that is university.
“When I was at McGill, everyone was in the same boat. [We all] had classes, had training, [and] had practices,” Cecere said.
The CWHL did not pay its players during Cecere’s time with the Stars, so she and most of her teammates worked full-time jobs, practicing on the evenings and competing on the weekends.
“I wasn’t always at full capacity, my energy was lower,” Cecere said. “I would spend my full day on my feet teaching [physical education], […] and then I would go from that to CEGEP practice, coach there, and then go to my practice [with the Stars] [….] You’re spent, pretty much.”
Even with these challenges and changes, McGill athletes still consistently achieve excellence: Cecere helped her team win the Clarkson Cup in 2012; Kiss-Rusk led the DBBL in rebounds and blocks in 2018-19; and Déguire continues to hold her own against more experienced players at national camps.
Whether they aim to go pro from the start or discover their options later on, McGill athletes have managed to find their way to professional leagues, despite the smaller size of U SPORTS and the McGill program. McGill’s alumni take their experiences at McGill and thrive—some even, as Cecere did, choose to come back to McGill to guide younger athletes on their own paths.