After a five-year wait, the biggest show North of the 55th parallel is off and running.
The 2023 Arctic Winter Games kicked off with a bang in Wood Buffalo, Alta., on Sunday. There was a bit of action before the opening ceremony as futsal and curling had round-robin games scheduled. Both of the NWT curling teams are out of the Inuvik Curling Club — Reese Wainman and her girls rink got off on the right foot by beating Alberta North, 7-4, followed by two wins on Monday over Alaska (9-3) and Yukon (12-2). The boys rink, meanwhile, lost to Alberta North, 10-2, on opening day. Monday saw the boys drop decisions to Alaska (12-0) and Yukon (6-5).
When it comes to basketball, the girls opened with a check in the win column on Monday by beating Alaska, 56-31. Taya Straker led the way offensively with 23 points in a winning effort, but head coach Aaron Wells said it was the bench that impressed him in game one.
“We played well out of the gate (with) strong defence,” he said. “The offence struggled a bit early on, but that’s just opening game jitters. Our bench came through big and you need that in order to be successful.”
The juvenile boys futsal team was on the wrong end of a 6-0 scoreline to Alberta North. They were set to play again on Tuesday versus Alaska. The junior girls squad saw their first action on Monday and lost a 2-1 decision to Yukon. They’ll also play Alaska on Tuesday. The junior boys team fell to Yukon, 4-2, on Monday, while the juvenile girls laid it on thick versus Alberta North, prevailing 12-0.
Did the girls think they would go out and put 12 past the opposition? Evynn Crossman from the juvenile girls team said not at all.
“No, we were all so nervous,” she said. “We know now how the game works and different ways we can move around.”
The U16 boys hockey team kicked off their campaign on Monday against Yukon and skated away with a 4-0 win. They were back at it in the evening versus Alberta North and doubled them up, 8-4.
A helping hand
The U19 boys team, meanwhile, started on a winning note Monday as they beat Alaska, 5-3. Most of the damage was done in the second period with Braden Brenton scoring the winner near the midway point of the middle frame.
Coach Jeff Bowden said it was a back-and-forth second period, but the boys found their stride.
“The first period was a feeling out sort of deal, seeing what kind of team they had,” he said. “It’s only our second game together, so lots of figuring things out, but they came around and it turned into a firefight.”
There is a nice little sidebar to the U19 boys outfit and it involves forward Bradley Bartlett. He arrived on Sunday with the team, but his equipment didn’t. What does one do when your gear doesn’t arrive? You go and borrow some and that’s where the Fort McMurray Oil Barons of the Alberta Junior Hockey League come in.
Terry Connors, who works with the Oil Barons, heard about Bartlett’s plight and brought him over to their equipment room. There, Bartlett was outfitted with brand new gear, right out of the plastic, from nearly head-to-toe.
“I was getting worried before our first game because I didn’t know what I was going to do,” said Bartlett. “Losing my gear is like a kick to the teeth.”
It was nearly head-to-toe because the skates came courtesy of Rob Carey. Carey’s daughter, Emma Carey, is playing with the girls hockey team and he just happened to bring his skates with him to Fort McMurray to watch his daughter.
Turned out he and Bartlett share the same boot size and that was a relief to Bartlett because the other option was, well, interesting.
“I would have had to use rentals from the arena and the pair that was in my size was spray-painted red,” he said.
As of Tuesday, Bartlett’s gear still hadn’t shown up, but he’ll get to use the Oil Barons’ donated equipment until the tournament comes to an end.
“I really appreciate everyone helping me out — the Oil Barons and Rob,” he said. “It’s a hassle breaking in new gear, but we dealt with it and everything’s working out.”
‘Really stepped up’
The U20 hockey girls split their opening two games beginning on Monday evening with an 8-1 win over Nunavut, but lost to Alberta North on Tuesday morning, 4-0.
The volleyball teams kicked things off on Monday and the boys were hard at it with three games. First up was Nunavut, which ended in a three-set heartbreak for the NWT boys. They dropped the decider, 16-14, to lose 2-1. Game two came against Alberta North and that was a straight-set loss, but game three saw the boys turn things around as they beat Yukon in three sets, winning the third set, 15-11.
Tuesday morning featured a contest with Alaska, which ended in a straight-set victory.
Head coach Reilly Hinchey said the opening loss to Nunavut was a tough one to swallow, but it didn’t faze them at all.
“They’ve really stepped up to the challenge here,” she said. “We were right in the game against Alberta and I would say no one is playing harder than we are right now.”
The three-set triumph over Yukon lit a fire under the boys, she added.
“We never gave up in that one,” she said. “We’re two-for-two in our last couple of games and we’re going to be there in the end playing for a (ulu).”
The girls volleyball squad had their first game against Alberta North on Monday and it ended in a straight-set loss, but they were able to rebound against Yukon later in the evening and came out on top in four sets. Tuesday morning saw the girls make it two in a row as they downed Nunavut, also in four sets.
The formats for the round-robins in volleyball are different in that the girls are playing a single round-robin with each match a best of five sets, while the boys are playing a modified double round-robin — playing each team twice — with each match a best of three sets.
Let the ulus fly
Speedskating was the kindest sport to the NWT on Monday with seven ulus in total. Brigid Murphy ended up winning gold in the juvenile girls 1,000-metre in a time of 1:59.33. It was a mere two one-thousandths of a second better than her teammate, Morgan Nelson, who picked up silver.
“It felt good because I never thought I would be able to get the gold medal,” said Murphy on Monday evening. “Everyone else was so fast. (Nelson) only lost by 0.02 seconds and there were so many people, so at the same time, I didn’t know what to expect.”
Sage Acorn was also a gold ulu winner as he copped top spot in the junior boys 1,000-metre race. He eclipsed teammate Lochlan Dunn at the line, giving Dunn the silver ulu. Byran Clinton completed the podium sweep for the NWT in that race by winning bronze.
Erika Pollard was a gold ulu winner herself as she finished first in the junior girls 1,000-metre, while Seiya McEachern won the juvenile boys 1,000-metre event.
James Williams had himself a very fine opening day of competition in Arctic sports. He won gold in the open men’s triple jump, leaping 10.154 metres, and followed that up with a silver in the head pull. Veronica McDonald, always a perennial favourite in Arctic sports, won her first ulu — silver — in the open women’s triple jump. Her distance was 7.544 metres.
Snowshoeing was also favourable for the NWT on Monday as Alexander Fast crossed the finish line first in the junior boys 5-km race to win gold. Kierra McDonald scored herself a bronze medal in the women’s 5-km version.
As of Tuesday afternoon, Team NT had 13 ulus — seven gold, four silver and two bronze.