By Cam Tucker

The WHL has joined the fight to try and save the UBC men’s hockey team, with its varsity status in question pending the outcome of the school’s contentious sport review.

WHL commissioner Ron Robison told Metro on Wednesday that the league and its owners – including Ron Toigo of the Vancouver Giants – are worried about the future of the university’s men’s hockey program, especially with the league’s partnership with Canada West in a joint scholarship for players.

“Our concern, first and foremost, is that opportunity may not be there should UBC cancel the men’s program,” said Robison.

Last month, UBC named the 16 men’s and women’s teams that qualified for varsity status following the first stage of its sport review. The men’s hockey team was not on that list.

Coaches for the teams that did not qualify could submit a five-year plan to the sport review advisory team, and a final decision on whether those teams retain varsity status or are demoted to a club level will be announced at the end of February.

Robison said the league’s owners, who met for meetings this week in Las Vegas, discussed initiatives to help save the UBC program, including a pre-season tournament that would include the five B.C. Division teams – the Giants, Victoria Royals, Kamloops Blazers, Kelowna Rockets and Prince George Cougars.

That could also include additional fundraising activities around that event, said Robison.

“We’ve made a commitment to throw our full support behind the UBC men’s hockey program, as has the Canadian Hockey League, Hockey Canada, B.C. Hockey Association and all of the amateur organizations in Canada,” he said.

There are currently 12 WHL graduates on the UBC men’s hockey roster, including former Giants Wes Vannieuwenhuizen and Neil Manning.

The league’s scholarship partnership with Canada West does not require league graduates to play hockey at university, meaning players can attend post-secondary institutions on the basis of academics alone, added Robison.

“Having said that, if they’re not in a position to compete at the highest level in the Canadian university system, that will certainly impact on the decision of a player to attend UBC,” said Robison.

“We’re optimistic that once the review is completed, they will clearly want to continue with the men’s hockey program.

“It plays a very integral role in the overall Canadian hockey structure and I know everybody in the system is very concerned. But I’m sure at the end of the day they’ll appreciate and understand the importance of this program remaining.”