Posted on: January 5, 2018
By Marty Hastings
Kamloops This Week Sports Editor
(posted with permission)
Curtis Atkinson is tasked with guiding the Thompson Rivers University WolfPack into a new era.
TRU vice-president of administration and finance Matt Milovick named Atkinson the school’s athletics and recreation director at a press conference on Wednesday, ending months-long speculation on who would replace Ken Olynyk, who in October announced he would be retiring from the position after a 14-year run.
“For me, it’s a dream opportunity,” said 40-year-old Atkinson, one of more than 25 who applied for the job. “I think we can win here. It’s difficult to win in university sport in Canada, but we want to get in a position where we can do it year after year, with all of our programs. That excites me.”
Olynyk’s last day on the job was Dec. 31.
The work experience that seems to have separated Atkinson from the pack is a stint as interim athletic director at the University of Regina that lasted from December 2014 to June 2016, but his immersion in university sports began in 1998, when he was a goaltender at Brandon University.
After graduating with a bachelor of general studies from Brandon, Atkinson earned a bachelor of human kinetics from UBC in 2004 and eventually landed at the U of R, at which he spent nine years and held several positions, including athletics co-ordinator and assistant facilities co-ordinator.
The LV Rogers secondary graduate, born in Kamloops and raised in Nelson, added to the education section of his resume with a master of science in kinesiology and health studies degree from the University of Regina in 2015.
The Atkinsons — Curtis, wife Heather Price, daughter Kaia, 9, and son Nash, 7 — moved to Kamloops from Regina in June 2016 when Heather was offered a job at TRU. She is a professor, a faculty member and Canada Research Chair.
After the move to the Tournament Capital, Atkinson became associate director of sport for Canada West, a position that allowed him to become familiar with Olynyk and the WolfPack. He worked closely with TRU at the U Sports Men’s Soccer Championship in November.
“Most of my adult life has been living and breathing university sport, from the time I was a student-ahlete, to my nine years at U of R and my last year with Canada West,” Atkinson said. “Understanding the landscape in U Sports and Canada West, knowing lots of the key people and the relationships I already had there, I think helped.”
Milovick led a selection committee that included TRU director of facilities Warren Asuchak, TRU director of ancillary services Glenn Read, WolfPack men’s basketball coach Scott Clark, WolfPack women’s volleyball coach Chad Grimm and WolfPack student-athletes Mitchell Popadynetz and Michelle Bos.
“He [Atkinson] really had the CV and the experience that we were looking for,” Milovick said. “We wanted a guy that could step into Ken’s shoes, that had experience with sports governance, with post-secondary administration in a sports context, and he brought all that to the table.
“And he wowed us in the interview. Curtis was far and away the top candidate for us.”
TRU faculty member Peter Soberlak, a former Kamloops Blazer and professional hockey player, was among the favourites for the job and told KTW in October the position would be a perfect fit for him.
“Congratulations to Curtis and his family,” Soberlak told KTW on Wednesday. “He has a great deal of knowledge and experience and will be an excellent leader for the WolfPack.”
Milovick suggested Soberlak, an assistant coach and mental consultant for the TRU men’s soccer team that won bronze on home turf at nationals in November, may see an expanded role with the WolfPack.
“He spent a lot of time with our athletes over the years with sports psychology and he and I are in discussions about how he can maintain involvement with the WolfPack,” Milovick said.
“He’s not a guy we want to lose. He’s got his faculty position, but we want him deeply involved with WolfPack athletics.”
Atkinson will be working with a much different — much less well endowed — budget than the one he managed in Regina.
“He brings a lot of ideas,” Milovick said. “We’ve been managing our budget in kind of the same way for years. To be able to have a different lens on how we spend our money, where we spend it and what priorities we invest in is important.”
The incoming AD (Atkinson’s tenure begins officially on Jan. 15) said he will spend efficiently.
“We’re seeing a bit of a gap in university sports in Canada where some programs are starting to increase the competitive gap, and a lot of it can be associated to funding,” Atkinson said. “Our teams here are keeping up, but if we don’t look at new sources of funding, allocating existing funds perhaps differently, then there could be a greater gap.
“You have to find a way to spend the dollars more effectively, that includes with athletic scholarships, perhaps support for enhanced non-conference competition, assistant coach support . . . this is where we’re starting to see the gaps in university sport.”
WolfPack coaches will be interested to see how a shift in budget practices affects them, just one of many aspects that will garner their attention with a new athletic director in town.
Atkinson was asked how he plans to analyze the crew of coaches he is inheriting.
“When there’s turnover like this, we want to spend some time evaluating the programs, evaluating the people,” he said. “Are we recruiting the right student-athletes? Are we retaining the right student-athletes? We have to look very big picture. Accountability is important.
“There is a lot of pressure on coaches, certainly, to compete at this level and produce results, but there won’t be any quick changes. I want to do a full evaluation of all the programs, meet the people, learn their strengths and weaknesses and see how we can support them better.”
Clark, the Canada West men’s coach of the year for 2015-2016, shared a few words on why Atkinson stood out to him during the selection process.
“First off, very intelligent, a guy that really understands the landscape of university sport in all aspects — from an administrative aspect, from an athletics aspect, from understanding what it takes to be competitive,” Clark said. “He’s seen a lot of different outfits, from his involvement with Regina and with Canada West. He was very prepared.”
Atkinson said there are no plans to breathe life into TRU’s defunct hockey program or start a football team.
“My priority would be how do we support the existing programs at the highest level possible?” Atkinson said. “How are we going to get these teams into the playoffs each year and be in a position to compete for conference championships and, ultimately, represent us at nationals.”
He can’t wait to get started.
“At the end of the day, I care about university sports, I care about student-athletes,” Atkinson said. “I want to see them be successful, I want to see them graduating and I want our teams to be successful.
“These first 30 days are going to be about meeting people. I have to dig in and see what’s working well.”
Atkinson is the fourth athletics and recreation director in institution history, following Pat O’Brien, Tracey Bilsky and Olynyk.
Old gym made anew?
Milovick said TRU will continue to invest in athletics and infrastructure enhancement may be on the way.
“We introduced a concept with our capital planning group on campus to revitalize our old gym,” Milovick said. “It’s circa 1980s and starting to show its age. That takes an investment of funds, which we don’t necessarily have right now.”
The City of Kamloops is exploring the idea of an air-supported dome covering the Hillside Stadium track and field to allow sports teams to practise year-round.
The project is in partnership with TRU, which is helping the city fund a feasibility study.
“It’s no secret we’re exploring the possibility of doming the field at [Hillside Stadium] with the city,” Milovick said.
“We’ll wait to see what the engineering report looks like and what the numbers will be and the partnership we might have with the city.”
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