Throughout the long and storied history of sport at the University of Saskatchewan, there have been many changes and developments since the first-ever inter-university game was played. The Huskies of today present a stark contrast when compared to those of yesterday, with regards to both the athletes and the sports that they play.
The first sport to participate in an inter-university competition at the U of S was men’s soccer in 1911, when the team took the train to the University of Alberta for a game. The U of S team started off inter-university sports for Saskatchewan with a 1-0 win against our neighbours to the west. The now well-known brand of Huskie Athletics had not yet been established, but men’s soccer serves as the foundation for it.
The men’s soccer team, or any U of S team, would not don the Huskies name until the 1920s. Men’s soccer would remain a constant, as it does today, continuing through both World Wars while other sports, such as football, were put on hold.
Although many people know about Huskie Athletics, and some might have an understanding of the history, few have as much experience and knowledge on the subject as Ross Wilson, who has had many points of contact with the Huskies over the years, as he explains.
“Both my parents were graduates at the [U of S], and both of them played Huskie Athletics. I played Huskie Athletics men’s soccer. In those days, there was both senior and junior basketball, and I played on the junior basketball program. That’s going back to the late 1960s. [I] coached here in the late 1980s to the early ’90s, and then, when I became athletics director, I gave up the coaching,” Wilson said.
As athletics director, Wilson oversaw 15 years of Huskies sports from the year 1991 to 2006. However, as Wilson is the middle member of a three-generation Huskies legacy, his involvement with the program runs much deeper than his professional experience with it. With such a long familiarity with the program, Wilson has experienced many of the changes that Huskie Athletics has undergone throughout the years.
One such change comes in the number of sports offered by Huskie Athletics. Wilson explains that, during his time with the Huskies, the seasons were shorter and less intensive, allowing athletes to compete in a number of sports — sometimes up to five in a regular year of university. Wilson also explains that shorter seasons took less resources, allowing the university to offer more sports overall.
“In those days, they had a golf team, a tennis team, a badminton team [and] a curling team. A lot of individual sport teams [existed] that are no longer a part of Huskie Athletics, but they used to be way back then. [For golf], in September, they would have a tournament for students here, and the winning four would represent them at a tournament for Western Canada three weeks later. The whole season was the month of September,” Wilson said.
Wilson shares further that other sports, such as swimming and fencing, that have since been removed from the umbrella of Huskie Athletics were also conducted with shorter seasons compared to today. However, the decline of these shorter-season individual’s sports gave way to the growth of women’s sports, which increased substantially during Wilson’s time as athletics director.
“Another predominant change over time has been the growth of women’s athletics. It wasn’t like it didn’t used to be there. My mom played women’s hockey, and that’s the early 1940s. There was women’s sport way back then, but when I started in 1991, we had nine men’s teams and five women’s teams,” Wilson said.
By the time Wilson finished his tenure as athletics director, women’s sports had expanded to have a team for every sport offered, save football. While women’s football has seen recent growth in Saskatoon with the establishment of the Valkyries, there have been no moves to make it an official university sport as of yet.
Women’s sports have had a presence at the U of S since as early as 1912, as Michael P.J. Kennedy’s book Dogs on Ice: A History of Hockey at University of Saskatchewan states. Kennedy, who gained fame for his class on hockey literature at the U of S, also writes that while women’s hockey on campus has early roots, it has not been constant. The largest gap in women’s hockey at the U of S was from 1955 to 1976, during which there was intramural hockey for women but no official team.
Throughout the years of Huskie Athletics, large administrative changes have also been made, which Wilson explains.
“What is now the College of Kinesiology used to be the College of Physical Education. It changed names quite a few years back, and before it was a college, it was a department of [the College of] Arts and Science,” Wilson said.
Throughout these changes, which have resulted in the College of Kinesiology that we see today, Huskie Athletics remained under the administration of the college it belonged to rather than becoming its own official branch of the university. Historically, this relationship with academia has shaped Huskie Athletics in several ways, including the way coaches were hired and the duties they performed.
“With coaching then, in the earliest years, people were hired to be faculty members in physical education and were assigned to coach a team as well. They were mostly teachers [and] researchers — they were the typical faculty [members] who also got assigned to coach,” Wilson said.
Wilson also explains that, as time went on, there was a gradual shift towards the professional coaches that we see today in Huskie Athletics.
“When I came along, late 1980s, most of the coaching faculty was fifty-fifty. You were hired to be a faculty for 50 per cent of your time, and you coached for 50 per cent of your time. In the ’70s and ’80s that was quite common, and in the late ’80s that began to phase out,” Wilson said.
This change to full-time, professional coaching is a large part of what Huskie Athletics is today. Nicole Betker, the sports information director for Huskie Athletics, gives her take on the developments to the program that she has seen in her 10 years with the Huskies.
“In the last 10 years, I’ve seen Huskie Athletics’ teams grow in their competitiveness across Canada. Obviously, Saskatchewan is generally known for our football and hockey programs, and in my time here, basketball has really grown on the map. Women’s basketball has been to the national championship nine of my 10 years here. So, it’s been really thrilling to watch programs sort of turn themselves around,” Betker said.
Turning her focus from the past to the future, Betker speaks on what recent changes mean for the program and the direction they will be headed as time goes on.
“It’s almost an ever-changing unit, and it’s very exciting. Also, the largest changes have happened in the last year with our new board of trustees and our new structure, moving to [existing] under a university umbrella as opposed to within the College of Kinesiology. So, it’s really interesting and new and innovative for a university sports team in Canada,” Betker said.
The formation of the board of trustees, and the organization’s new position under the university as a whole, rather than having its administration under the College of Kinesiology, will likely be a historical moment for Huskie Athletics, as many developments could stem from it in the future.
Although the new structure may bring many changes, Betker believes that the core at the centre of Huskie Athletics is strong.
“It’s the people. It’s the type of coaches we hire, the recruits we recruit, the athletes that play here — and then, they turn into alumni, and they turn into donors and sponsors… We really recruit people who embody the term ‘Huskie pride,’ and I know that sounds cheesy, but all of our teams believe in that Huskie pride. All of our teams have the hard-work ethic, the drive to be the best in athletics, academics and community.”
Jack Thompson / Sports & Health Editor
Photos: University of Saskatchewan, University Archives & Special Collections, Photograph Collection (A-6007, A-440, A-4379, and A-5164: Photographer, Gibson)