It was after midnight Tuesday in Novosibirsk, Russia, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau urged Canadians abroad to come home.
Ruth Hamblin, who plays basketball for WBC Dynamo Novosibirsk in the Siberian city, stayed up to watch the news conference.
“When he says, ’As a Canadian outside Canada, this is your time to come home,’ those words hit me like a rock in my stomach,” said Hamblin. ”I thought, ‘I need to come home, this isn’t the time to play games, I just need to come home and be there and ride this out there.’”
Home for Hamblin is Houston, a small town in British Columbia’s interior sandwiched between Smithers and Burns Lake. And getting there hasn’t been so easy.
While the Russian women’s basketball league has shut down amid the sweeping COVID-19 pandemic, her team was still scheduling mandatory practices as of Tuesday. Leaving meant breaking her contract, and losing any pay she was owed.
“The hardest part going through this is just the way my club is treating me right now,” she said in a shaky voice. “There’s no empathy. There’s no understanding about what’s going on. And I’m not even asking to be paid out. I just want to leave, and get the money for the days that I have worked and have a flight home and they’re absolutely treating me like (expletive).
“That’s really hard. Especially being away from family and having this global epidemic and it’s unprecedented. And then to be in an environment that doesn’t respect how you feel and what you need emotionally is really tough.”
Hamblin, Jamie Scott, and Miah-Marie Langlois are all starters for Dynamo Novosibirsk, and members of Canada’s national women’s team. Langlois settled her contract for another reason and was scheduled to fly home Wednesday. Scott, Hamblin said, planned to stick it out in Siberia.
“It’s so confusing,” Hamblin said. “They’re trying to abuse us for this clause in our contract by basically trying to prevent having to pay us out by. The wording in our contract is that it’s until the last official game or May 1, but not earlier.
“So they’re using that to hope that will break our contract, and then they don’t have to pay us out.”
Other than cancelling league games, Hamblin said there was little sign people were paying attention to COVID-19 in Siberia.
“I’ve been following the Moscow Times and I don’t know if Russia is accurately reporting it, it’s not a big deal over here, nobody’s concerned,” she said. ”But the thing is, the numbers that I’ve been seeing, it’s doubling overnight, like last Friday there were like 12 cases, and then there was 36 and now there’s 96.
“At this rate, it’s just going to blow up and nobody’s concerned and nobody’s doing anything and so I’m scared to be here.”
And while Trudeau told Canadians to return home while they still can, he added that with three million Canadians living or travelling abroad at any one time, it won’t be possible for everyone to return immediately.
The country has dozens of basketball players plying their trade outside Canada, and there are also countless athletes in numerous sports in the same boats.
Athletics Canada alone helped bring 15 of its athletes home in the past few days. Water Polo Canada brought home a half a dozen players.
Hamblin, a six-foot-six centre and a two-time Pac-12 defensive player of the year for Oregon State, is working with her agent. She’s getting guidance from teammates on Canada’s women’s team, saying they’ve been ”wonderful.”
“They’re giving me advice about the situation and all the veterans that I’ve been talking to are like, ‘It’s not even worth it, cut your costs, and get the hell out of there,’” she said. ”And so I’m just kind of following their wisdom in this.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 17, 2020.