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Alumni are realizing their aspiration of playing professionally after university
Ryerson and other Canadian universities generally are not known for producing professional athletes — certainly not in the same way our neighbours to the south are. In 2019, the NCAA had 1,181 of its athletes drafted to major pro sports leagues in football, baseball, hockey, and men’s and women’s basketball.
However, some USports athletes have defied expectations by making it to the major leagues. University of PEI graduate Joel Ward is among several former USport hockey players to have successful NHL careers. Ward potted 133 goals over a decade-long NHL career.
Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, who graduated from McGill with a degree in medicine, was drafted 200th in the 2014 NFL draft and is in his sixth season with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Ryerson’s own Roy Rana joined the NBA’s Sacramento Kings coaching staff in June after coaching the Ram’s basketball team for 10 seasons.
Current Ryerson student Tanor Ngom flirted with entering the NBA draft before returning to the Ram’s this season. The 7-foot-2 Senegal native could still become the second USport athlete ever to be drafted in the NBA.
Although for most USports athletes, the major pro sports leagues are out of reach, many have found opportunities in other leagues, most notably the CFL, which had 184 USports alumni playing in 2018.
Ryerson hasn’t had a football team since 1964. However, many of our top athletes have been playing professional sports after graduation for years — although usually far away from the bright spotlight of the major leagues.
Mark Corbett graduated from Ryerson in 2015. He wrote his final exams in Tennessee, having gone there to finish the hockey season in the Southern Professional Hockey League, ultimately winning a championship with the Knoxville Ice Bears that year.
“At the beginning of my career at Ryerson, I didn’t really see the light at the end of the tunnel for professional hockey or to continue my career. I was just happy to be getting an education while playing a sport I love,” Corbett says.
Most young Canadian hockey prospects go through the ranks of the Canadian Hockey League and only end up in USports after giving up on pro ambitions.
But Corbett did find a way to have a professional career, in part by making his own connections.
“You kinda have to figure it out yourself, to be honest, and that’s where the hockey community comes into play,” Corbett says, adding that he has used his social network within hockey to find jobs in the SPHL, France and now Sweden throughout a six-year career.
Ryan Vanderburg also had to pave his own way during his pro sports career.
Unlike most pro athletes, Vanderburg didn’t start playing competitive volleyball until Grade 11. However, his natural ability and 6-foot-10 fame made him a sought-after recruit for Ryerson.
He joined a struggling volleyball team at Ryerson, that had won only one game in four years.
“It was nice to be able to help establish a program and build it up to what it is today,” says Vanderburg, who led Ryerson to the OUA finals in 2006.
This success attracted interest from pro leagues in Europe. “It’s hard as a Canadian to get a professional contract in volleyball. It’s much easier today but still very difficult,” adds Vanderburg, who still owns many of Ryerson’s volleyball records. “No one knows what the hell Ryerson is. Unless you’re playing on the national team and you’re really competitive, it’s hard to get your name out there. I was very successful in university, so that really helped me.”
Vanderburg landed a contract in Denmark where he played indoor volleyball for two years. He then switched to beach volleyball and has represented Team Canada for nine years in international competition. He currently lives in Palm Beach, Fla., with his wife and young daughter, and also works as an urban planner.
More volleyball players from Ryerson are making it pro today. “Typically we get one or two players to go pro from a graduating year,” men’s volleyball coach Mattew Harris says.
One major obstacle is that there are no pro leagues in North America.
“A lot of the pro leagues have a cap for foreigners. In most leagues you can only have two on your roster,” Harris says. Because of that, a lot of our players seek out family routes in Europe to get a passport, so they don’t have to be an import player.
This is also the case for playing international basketball. Filip Vujadinovic graduated from Ryerson last year after helping the Rams to two USports silvers and a first provincial title. This season, he lost his initial contract offer to play in Spain, not because of his play, but because his Serbian passport did not arrive in time. He had to wait for most of the spring before signing with Club Baloncesto Marbella.
Vujandinovic, whose family is from Serbia, grew up in Canada with dreams of being a hockey goaltender. His parents didn’t have enough money for the equipment, so they asked if he wanted to play basketball instead. He was a natural. He moved up to play against kids two and three years older and later led Nelson High School in scoring.
Vujandinovic had several offers to play in the NCAA, but a meeting with Rana convinced him to join Ryerson. “I took a chance on a team that could possibly become elite, and we did over those five years,” he says.
“I had a really rough first year, which was kind of expected, but I grew from that. I think if I hadn’t gone to Ryerson, maybe I could have been a better player in terms of more experience, but I definitely would not be IQ wise where I am now, which I think will help me a ton now as a pro.”
Although Ryerson does not have the name recognition to boost players into pro careers, it does provide the coaching and training facilities needed to chase their pro dreams through their own hard work.
“The biggest thing that we can do here at Ryerson is to improve their strength and conditioning, and we can provide that with the professional staff and resources that we have,” says Harris, speaking about the volleyball program. He says it also “provides lots of individualized training for skill development.”
Although the politics of professional sports can be challenging to navigate, ultimately, what determines if a player can make it is their ability, according to Vujandinovic. “You can get a decent paying job out of CIS if you produce.”
However, for Ryerson graduates, most do not go on to play pro sports for financial rewards.
For Melissa Wronzberg playing in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League was the realization of a lifelong dream. “Being able to say you played pro hockey is kind of cool,” she says.
Wronzberg joined Ryerson women’s hockey in its inaugural season in 2011, playing until 2016.
“I thought about going to Europe, but since the CWHL is the best hockey, I always dreamt of going there,” Wronzberg says, adding that there are, however, “very limited spots for the number of girls who come out of playing college hockey.”
Wronzberg was selected to the Markham Thunder in the 2016 draft and was suddenly playing against many of her idols. “I was playing with girls I used to watch on TV at the Olympics,” Wronzberg says. “My first career penalty was against Marie-Philip Poulin (a two-time Olympic gold medallist).”
In Wronzberg’s second year with the Thunder, her team won the Clarkson Cup as league champions. Another highlight she mentioned was travelling to China to play against teams there.
The opportunity to travel is a big incentive for Ryerson alumni considering playing pro sports.
“If I can travel the world and get paid to do it, I think it’s a no-brainer, at least for a couple of years,” says Corbett, who has visited 10 countries while playing in Europe the past three years.
Vanderburg agrees but says it still takes lots of work. “I got to play volleyball and travel the world, which was great. But for anyone who wants to play, it’s not as glamorous as it sounds at all,” he says.
The financial struggles for those playing in the minor leagues can be a grind.
“When I played in the CWHL, I worked my regular 9-to-5 job and then had to hustle to eat dinner and run off to a game or a practice then get home late at night and wake up early the next morning for work again,” says Wronzberg. “You barely ever have time to go to the gym like a proper professional athlete would, but I did it because I really enjoyed it.
“The Hockey Canada girls are a little more fortunate in that they get some funding from Hockey Canada, so they’re able to spend more time in the gym and development, but it’s still very limited.”
The CWHL folded this year after many of the players joined together to form a players’ association. They aim to grow the sport in hopes that the next generation will be able to have a better experience playing pro as women hockey players.
“It was pretty heartbreaking for all the girls to play in the league, and even me who doesn’t play in the league anymore,” Wronzberg says.
A job as a professional athlete can be fleeting, an injury, political changes, or financial matters can interrupt or end your career abruptly. However, for many Ryerson alumni, it is still worth the struggle to live out their dreams.
“You wish you could go until you’re 40, but you have to face reality too, and you have people back home that you’d like to spend more time with,” Corbett says. He is considering retirement after this year.
Vanderburg, now 36, says the sacrifices are worth it to play pro volleyball.
“It’s hard, you’re away from your family, you’re away from your friends, you’re in a different country, you’re definitely not making as much money as you thought you might make. But it’s definitely an adventure,” Vanderburg says. “It’s an opportunity for you to chase your dreams. If you have a dream, don’t let something as stupid as getting a full-time job get in the way. You can get a job anytime you want, especially if you have a good university degree. So delay those job dreams and go have some fun.”