Lethbridge axes men’s and women’s hockey teams, citing budget cuts

University of Alberta Golden Bears' Grayson Pawlenchuck battles with University of Lethbridge Pronghorns' Cameron Trott during U CUP hockey action Thursday, March 14, 2019, in Lethbridge, Alberta. (David Rossiter/CP)

LETHBRIDGE, Alta. — The University of Lethbridge has shut down its men’s and women’s hockey teams citing three straight years of cuts to its operating grant.

Scuttling the hockey teams was one of several budget reductions in response to Alberta government cuts, the university said Monday in a statement on its website.

A total of 52 student-athletes were affected by the decision, as well as coaches and recruits.

"We have had to make several difficult decisions in the past few months and this one is equally challenging," University of Lethbridge president Mike McMahon said in the statement.

"The Pronghorn hockey programs have been a source of great pride for our athletes, students, alumni, donors, sponsors, the campus community and supporters throughout southern Alberta."

"I know this news will significantly impact everyone associated with these programs."

The Pronghorns won a national men’s hockey title in 1994 when they were coached by former Toronto Maple Leafs head coach and 2010 Canadian men’s Olympic team coach Mike Babcock.

In his book "Leave No Doubt," Babcock wrote that after he was fired from one coaching job, he accepted an offer to coach the Pronghorns in 1993 instead of working for a consulting firm.

"I’m not sure anybody would have looked at me in 1993, as I began my stint as the head coach of the University of Lethbridge, and figured me for a good bet to be the head coach of Canada’s hockey team at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver," Babcock wrote.

"Then again, if you put yourself out there, if you take a risk and face your doubt, good things can start to happen."

The men’s team debuted in 1984-85.

The women’s team, which began playing in 1997-98, made the Canada West playoffs seven times and reached the national championship tournament in 2003.

Basketball, soccer, track and field, swimming and women’s rugby team will continue to operate, but future budget decisions remain "as the Government of Alberta has signalled additional cuts in the next two fiscal years," the statement said.

The statement also said the university has eliminated 61 positions across several departments over the last six months.

Reviews conducted in both 2015 and 2019 concluded the university’s 11 varsity teams was proportionately large in a student population of just under 9,000.

The University of Lethbridge said it injected an extra $1.55 million into Pronghorn Athletics from 2015 to 2019 to buy time to find other sources of operating revenue. That didn’t happen.

"It is unusual for a school of our size to fund as many teams as we have," Mahon said.

"My hope is with a concentrated focus on remaining Pronghorn programs, we can continue to provide our student-athletes with a robust and meaningful experience."

The loss of Lethbridge is the first contraction in Canada West hockey since 2002, when Brandon University dropped its men’s team and the University of Calgary folded its women’s program in the same year

The University of Calgary rejoined the conference in 2009, however, and claimed a national women’s title in 2011.

"We understand that these are incredibly challenging times for our members and that cutting a program is a decision that is never taken lightly," Canada West president Clint Hamilton said in a statement.

"Nonetheless it’s always disappointing to have a member end their participation in a CW sport."

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