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“It’s a crazy year but we got an opportunity to do something special. It’s great.”

For a lot of Canadian kids like Zak Smith, a 19-year-old left winger with the Red Deer Rebels hockey team and an Athabasca University (AU) learner, the idea of living in a hockey rink is a dream scenario.

But when it involves a mandatory COVID-19 test every Wednesday like clockwork, the dream loses its lustre. But let’s face it, COVID hasn’t allowed for a dream-like situation for anyone; it’s much more like a prolonged nightmare.

Gaining a sense of normalcy is one of the keys that keeps a lot of us moving forward. For many Canadians, normal includes hockey. And in order for the Red Deer Rebels of the Western Hockey League (WHL) to return to an improvised “normal,” this means living at the hockey rink. When a modified WHL season was announced, the Rebels decided to create a bubble within the walls of the Westerner Park Centrium as the best option to keep players and staff safe. The only nuances would be travelling to away games by team charter, and their only guests are opposing teams.

Photo: Rob Wallator

Eat, sleep, breathe hockey

Eat, sleep, breathe hockey suddenly has a very different meaning, but Smith is taking it all in stride. While he was growing up in Austin, Man., the self-proclaimed country boy didn’t picture sleeping in a refashioned luxury box as part of his third year as a Rebels player, but here he is.

“Us living in the rink is pretty much the first time it’s ever been done, in pretty much the world,” Smith said. “It’s something special we get to do together—it’s obviously brought us closer.”

This bond has undoubtedly expanded their camaraderie; in fact in some ways this setup mimics university team’s on-ice/off-ice structure. Leadership certainly sets the very structured agenda for their day, but there is a lot of free time: for exercise, for recreation, for National Hockey League (NHL) games and movies on the jumbotron, and for learning. Most of the players are still high-school students, while several have graduated.

“Usually we have a school time in the morning instead of working out and a lot after practice. There’s always time to get your education,” he said.

As a beneficiary of the ongoing partnership between AU and the WHL, he is taking an Introduction to Marketing course through the Faculty of Business. Although Smith said he is unsure where his hockey career will take him, both he and the team have education as a high priority.

“Right now I’m just taking as many courses as possible. My mom’s a teacher and makes it pretty important—she’s always on me,” he said. “Usually on long road trips, there is a lot of time spent studying. Coach really preaches that.”

Zak wouldn’t be able to balance hockey and education without AU. The structure of our online delivery allows learning to meet learners where they are—either during their major junior career or after; no matter where they’re located. The WHL offers each player a full one-year post-secondary education scholarship for each year he spends in the league. Since the partnership was announced 11 years ago, 908 learners have taken more than 1274 courses with AU.

The Rebels and the WHL have regular-season games scheduled into May 2021, with no definite plans for a post-season yet. Whatever may come of it, this season has been one for the ages. In a COVID-19 world, “eat, breathe, sleep hockey” has a different ring to it for the Rebels.

“It’s a crazy year but we got an opportunity to do something special, it’s great,” Smith said. “This season is something we can talk about with our kids and grandkids 30 or 40 years from now.”

  • March 15, 2021