It’s not the ending Selkirk College Saints’ captain Parker Wakaruk anticipated.
On March 12, the Saints had traveled to Langley and were preparing for the first-round British Columbia Intercollegiate Hockey League (BCIHL) playoff series against the Trinity Western University Spartans when they received news that all games were suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We knew what was happening with professional leagues at that moment, but we still had to get ready to play. We were hoping that some way we would be able to get through that series,” Wakaruk says about the moment after the pre-game skate that they were delivered the news to pack up their bags.
“It was weird because you are just done. You don’t win, you don’t lose, you are just done. There is no emotion to it, it’s a real bizarre feeling. There is no closure or any kind of exit… it’s just over. It’s a month later and still it’s a weird feeling.”
Heading into the best-of-three semi-final series, the Saints had a massive challenge ahead if they were to return to the West Kootenay with a chance to play in the league title the following weekend. The defending champion Spartans finished 21 points ahead of Selkirk College in the regular season and were the clear favourites to repeat, but the Saints had little to lose and wore the underdog label with pride.
The players fully realized that cancellation of the season was necessary, but the bus ride back to the West Kootenay was difficult. The situation was even more heartbreaking for those graduating from the program, a group of players that included Wakaruk.
“It builds on the idea that you never really know when it’s going to be your last game,” he says. “It’s a whole new meaning of ‘playing every game like it’s your last’ because at least for me, I may never play a competitive hockey game again and have an opportunity to win a championship.”
A Life-Changing Experience
Wakaruk arrived to the Castlegar Campus in 2017 carrying a hockey bag stuffed with junior level experience and a mind set on finding his educational passion. After graduating from high school in Lethbridge, Alberta, the talented defencemen left home and took his hockey talents to Junior A hockey. He played two seasons with the Grand Prairie Storm (AJHL) before shifting a province over and finishing his junior career with the Humboldt Broncos (SJHL).
He knew little about where he was coming and was unsure about what he wanted out of the academic side of his next chapter. He started his learning journey in the School of Academic Upgrading where he was able to ease back into the classroom, a place he had not been for three years. Empowered by his success, he chose the two-year Business Administration Program as a focus and is currently putting the finishing touches on his diploma.
“It’s a really great place to learn, both in the classroom and in life,” he says. “I have grown quite a bit in the last three years.”
A major part of his growth has come via events out of his control.
The horrific Humboldt Broncos team bus accident that killed 16 people in April 2018 turned the hockey world upside-down. For Wakaruk, the moment cut even deeper. He was a former teammate and friends with several of those involved in the tragedy. Wakaruk had to come to terms with the weight of heavy grief.
“It was devastating… you don’t want to believe what you heard and that it’s real,” he says. “It gives you perspective on how quickly things can be taken away from you and how quickly things can change without warning or any real reason. You have to deal with it and figure out ways to get through it, you grow from it.”
Dealing with the New Normal
The move away from in-person learning to alternate methods of delivery due to the COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult for Selkirk College students. The isolation and uncertainty of the final weeks of the Winter Semester has delivered additional stress to students in all programs.
Wakaruk is using the lessons learned to this point for guidance through the final weeks. Like many students from out of region, he has moved back to his parent’s house and is currently in Okotoks, Alberta completing assignments and studying for finals.
“We are living through history right now,” he says. “As students, we need to use our support systems. Set up meeting times for a group-chat with your classmates to get the work done or complete the projects. It’s difficult, but you need to create the most normal atmosphere as you can. If you try to do it all by yourself, you are just going to struggle and all your motivation goes right down the drain.”
Hooked on Life in the West Kootenay
If all goes according to plan, Wakaruk will land right back at Selkirk College in September where he will hang up the skates and put his primary focus on earning an Advanced Diploma in Geographic Information Systems (GIS).
“I was going to use Selkirk College as a stepping stone to another place or another school,” says the 23-year-old. “After being in an awesome small community and seeing what Selkirk College has to offer, it has what I want right here.”
Like so many who arrive to the West Kootenay from elsewhere, Wakaruk quickly developed a fondness for the region’s mountains, rivers and bounty of outdoor recreation. Having grown up on the icy prairies, he has grown fond of both the weather and the geography in his new home.
“You can go skiing, fishing and biking in the same day… I’ve done it,” Wakaruk says with a smile. “You don’t get a chance to do that in too many places, it’s unique here. I’m glad I found myself in this place.”