Are you ready for the 2018 Arctic Winter Games yet? Hundreds of young athletes from around the territory were as they tried their best to make Team NWT for the Games, which happen in the South Slave in March.
The first half of the territorial trials wrapped up on Dec. 9 and some got the good news that they would be moving on to represent the territory in a few months. Nine sports were in action that weekend: volleyball, hockey, figure skating, gymnastics, biathlon, futsal, basketball, cross-country skiing and curling.
The curling trials were held in Fort Smith and it will be teams from the host communities that will get the chance to hit the ice at the Fort Smith Curling Club in March. Sawer Kaeser and his boys rink from Fort Smith defeated Adam Naugler of Yellowknife for the boys crown while Zoey Walsh and her rink from Hay River beat out two other teams to win the girls trials.
When it comes to basketball, the boys team will feature several players from the communities hitting the hardcourt. They include Liam Larocque of Inuvik, John Roche of Deline and TJ Kaskamin of Fort Good Hope, all veterans of Team NWT over the years.
Aaron Wells, the boys head coach, said it shows how well Basketball NWT has done over the years to ensure strong competition all over the territory.
“Basketball NWT has done a good job in getting into the communities and it showed,” he said. “I had an idea of the boys coming and I knew there were some good players.”
Even with that knowledge, it mostly mattered what the players did on the court that weekend; past reputations and performances need not apply.
“No picks before we started, a clean slate,” he said. “The players knew that they wouldn’t be selected based on past performances and that made (them) accountable.”
The boys team won silver two years ago in Greenland, a performance Wells is hoping to at least repeat this time around, although a gold wouldn’t go astray, he said.
“Not playing for gold would be a huge disappointment for us,” he said. “I know the returning players have their eye on playing for gold, as do I, but you never know. There’s only four teams and there will be some surprises in store for the other teams. We have some players that Yukon and Nunavut haven’t seen before.”
The midget boys hockey team will be making a welcome return to the ice for the Games in Hay River. The sport was on the outside looking in for the 2016 Games in Greenland along with dog mushing, curling, figure skating, speedskating and gymnastics.
This version of the midget boys will have two very solid goaltenders in Jean-Luc Amirault and Liam Tereposky with players such as Connor Steed from Fort Smith anchoring the defence and Aklavik’s Andrew Charlie playing up front.
Randy Caines is the head coach and said one of the best things going for him was having very little knowledge of the players in front of him beforehand.
“I had no real prior knowledge of a lot of the guys who were out there and, to be honest, I didn’t know a lot of the names,” he said. “I was going by jersey numbers or the colour of their helmet.”
More than 50 players were looking for a NWT jersey and that caused some headaches when it came to the final selections, but Caines said that was nothing compared to what the players must have been going through.
“They were the ones who had to perform every time,” he said. “We could tell who brought their A game, we could tell where a weak backcheck was, who was going hard every shift, and we chose from that.”
The bantam boys hockey trials were held in Inuvik with just shy of 40 players heading to the Beaufort Delta to try their luck under the watchful eyes of head coach Shawn Talbot and assistant coach R.J. Carr.
Just like the midget boys, the bantams will be playing full contact and Talbot said he was hoping to have a roster of players who were tough mentally and physically once the weekend was over.
“It’s full contact so having players who can crash and bang is important,” he said. “You don’t want a lot of kids who want to play the perimeter – you need to get in the corners and dig for that puck and play physical. Speed was an important factor and a high hockey IQ as well. We don’t have a lot of time to build systems, because it’s such a short tournament. So being smart on the ice is key.”
On top of all that, conditioning was something Talbot stressed over the course of the weekend.
“Those who weren’t in shape started to show as it went on,” he said. “It was passive at the start with guys not really getting into it but once the physical side started taking shape, you could see that gap start to widen by the third game we had. The competitive kids started to stand out.”
It didn’t help that some kids were ordering poutine and pop after practices as well, he added.
Gymnastics is another sport making its return to the AWG after an absence. Their trials lasted just one day – Dec. 8 – and the team was chosen that evening. The lucky quartet that will compete in Hay River are Sofia Barichello, Megan Rogers, Anna Lalonde and Iman Livingstone. Mackenzie Chiasson is the alternate.
Cross-country skiing was one of the events hosted in Fort Smith, which is where the event will be held once the Games get going. A total of 19 skiers, a majority of whom hail from Yellowknife, will line up once the Games begin.
Another sport happy to be back for the AWG is figure skating – another victim of Greenland’s lack of available facilities. Eight skaters, all from Yellowknife and all female, will be making the trip to Fort Smith when the Games begin.
Volleyball had one of the largest turnouts over the weekend with more than 80 boys and girls hopefuls in Yellowknife to get one of the available spots.
The final selections for the boys will see a big team size-wise and experience-wise, with four players having played at the 2016 AWG, eight featuring at the 2017 Canada Summer Games and five at the 2017 North American Indigenous Games. Some of those players include Dawson Elias of Inuvik and Dane Dupuis of Hay River.
That being the case, Darren Horn, head coach for the boys, said that didn’t factor in trials.
“I told the kids that the past few months didn’t matter,” he said. “It’s good to have that experience but that’s not part of our selection criteria. I have to go with what’s in front of me.”
With half of the sports now done, it was a chance for Doug Rentmeister, Team NWT’s chef de mission, to take stock of just how busy a weekend it really was.
“We had a significant number of communities taking part,” he said. “That’s roughly 550 kids registered, 400 of them flown in.”
Those sports that were part of the first wave had to have their rosters finalized by Dec. 12, partly because Rentmeister and his staff need to know how many athletes would be entering the second wave of trials in January.
“That allows for the alternates of any team to get their names in,” he said. “We needed those athletes to let us know what they were going to do and we didn’t want to hold any team hostage because of that.”