It’s a Thursday afternoon, the date December 14, 2000, and a group of Grade 6 students from St. Paul’s School are sitting, some squirming, in their seats at the Oilsands Discovery Centre theatre.
This is no regular class excursion though.
They are waiting for a special announcement.
Gerry Thick, President of the Arctic Winter Games International Committee, steps up to the microphone situated at the front stage.
Looking at the students, he smiles and follows with this announcement: “The international committee has chosen, for your information, the bid from Wood Buffalo to host the 2004 Arctic Winter Games (AWG).”
The St. Paul’s students are now standing, jumping, hugging and cheering and waving miniature flags handed out for the occasion.
Mayor Doug Faulkner shakes hands and pats backs. “I am thrilled out of my skin that we got those games.”
Fort McMurray had already had their sporting appetizers with the hosting of the 1985 Alberta Summer Games and the 1992 Alberta Winter Games.
Now it was time for the full meal deal.
“It’s a great day for this region, “said Co-Chair Mike Ashar, Suncor Energy Vice-President in an interview. “This will be the greatest thing that has ever happened to the region.
“This is a mega-cultural event, a mega sporting event and everybody I’ve talked to who has participated in one has been really touched by it.”
Unfortunately, Ashar will not be able to stay on board, moving to Denver, Colorado to lead Suncor’s new downstream business, Suncor Energy USA.
He will be replaced by local businessman (H. Wilson Industries) and community leader John Wilson.
Dave Tuccaro, then president of Neegan Development Corporation, is the other AWG Co-Chair.
The Alberta Government will toss in $1.4 million of the approximately $4 million operating budget.
Appointed Games Manager, Tom O’Hara gathers an incredible staff, buoyed by 5,000 volunteers, to pull off what many believe was the best AWG to date.
Starting in 1970 the AWG is a biennial multi-sport and indigenous cultural event involving circumpolar peoples residing in communities or countries bordering the Arctic Ocean.
More than 8,000 take in the opening ceremonies at ATCO Place.
The Ladouceur family bring in the torch by sled dog to the official games theme song “Feel the Sprit” composed by 15 year-old Bryan LeGrow.
Entertainment is highlighted by local country singer Aaron Lines.
Comparing these 2004 AWG Opening Ceremonies to those of the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics, Alberta Premier Ralph Klein in attendance, surprises many by commenting, “There’s more energy here during these games.”
Master of Ceremonies Terry Leibel of CBC echoed those thoughts: “It’s the most enthusiasm I’ve ever witnessed.”
A total of 1,713 athletes from Alaska, Greenland, Magadan, Northern Alberta, Northwest Territories, Nunavik-Quebec, Nunavut, Sápmi, Yamal Nenets, and Yukon will compete.
They represent the countries of Canada, Finland, Greenland, Norway, Sweden, Russia and the USA.
Team Alberta will have a contingent of 355.
On the first day of competition, the headlines for more than 230 journalists came from the speed skating the track.
It was here that Michael Gilday, 17, of Team Northwest Territories, shatters the 777 metre distance with a clocking of 1:12.22.
The previous record of 1:14.23 was set in 1996 by David McCann also of NWT.
Gilday would go on to compete at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics placing 17th in the 1,500 metre. He would skate to gold in 2011 and 2013 in the World Championships as part of the 5,000-metre relay.
Every so often rules change in sports and such was the case at the 2004 AWG. In basketball, an attempt was made to level out competition in men’s basketball with Alaska’s average age at 14 and Team Alberta North at 17.
In past years Alaska had dominated hoops competition.
Looking back to 1996 in Chugiak, Eagle River, Alaska, the other team’s eyes went wide when 6-foot-9 Carlos Boozer walked out onto the hardwood and shatters a backboard during warm-ups.
He would go on to become a two-time NBA All-Star (2007, 2008).
With numerous sporting events and more than 125 cultural performances, by all accounts, things went smoothly.
“It’s gone fantastic. We couldn’t have asked for a better result. Events have gone excellent…there’s been lots of spectators and good weather. We are extremely pleased,” said Wilson.
John Estler, Chef de Mission AWG Alaska, in a Letter to the Editor Fort McMurray TODAY had this to say: “The memories that our team members took home from these Games will be special indeed. You have set a standard, which will be difficult to match.”
The only pitfall of the 2004 AWG was that 26 of the 51 Magadan team were unable to arrive at the games due to Visa mix-ups and uncompleted paperwork on their part.
Three Arctic Sport and Dene sports records were set in Fort McMurray.
One Foot High Kick, John Miller II, Team Alaska, 9 feet 5 inches.
Two Foot High Kick, Boris Tyumen, Magadan, 7 feet 10 inches, tied with Nick Randazzo, Alaska, 1988 measure.
Triple Jump, Alan Kanukov, Magadan, 11.09 metres.
Overall Team Alberta North took home 137 Ulus, followed by Alaska at 135, NWT and Yukon at 105.
Hodgson Trophy for Most Sportsmanlike team went to Nunavut.
All photos courtesy of Arctic Winter Games International Committee and PhotoMagic Foto Source Photos (Fort McMurray, Alberta)
About the author
Curtis J. Phillips
Residing in Fort McMurray since 1982, Curtis J. Phillips is a productive sports journalist in print/electronic mediums. He enjoys researching local sports history and was Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference Sports Writer from 2008-2019. Recognized as Canada’s Basketball Historian, he is an advocate for community volunteerism.