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The Year of Sports in YMM

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It is in our genetic makeup. It is in our name. When it comes to the hosting of world-class sporting events, Fort McMurray and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo comes about it honestly.

William McMurray, the namesake of Fort McMurray, was a sportsman in every sense of the word. The athletic legend of McMurray found its foundation in 1844 when at the age of 19 he decided to celebrate New Year’s in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta. To attend this celebration, McMurray traveled more than 320 kilometres from Fort Resolution, Northwest Territories in 30 degree below Fahrenheit conditions.

According to letter written by Chief Factor Roderick MacFarlane, “(McMurray) was also an excellent shot, and among the best winter travelers of his time.”

It was also back in 1865 at Winnipeg’s Lower Fort Garry, that McMurray presented a cricket bat for the opening game of cricket.

He had the energy. We have the energy.

Energy in hosting events including the 1980 Canadian Black Powder Federation Championships, 1985 Alberta Summer Games, 1989 National Cycling Championships, 1992 Alberta Winter Games, 1994 National Jet Ski Championships, 1995 Canadian Triathlon Championships and the 1998 Apollo World Curling Championships to name a few.

The first time our region embraced more than two high-profile sporting championships was in 2000 with the Alberta Francophone Games, Canadian Big League Baseball Championships and the Royal Bank Cup (RBC), symbolic of junior hockey supremacy in Canada.

The 2000 RBC would be captured by the  Fort McMurray Oil Barons beating the No. 1 ranked Rayside-Balfour Sabres from Ontario 2-1 May 14, 2000 at Thickwood Heights Arena  (which is now known as the Casman Centre).

We would continue to adopt other championships: 2003 Alberta Senior Games, 2004 Arctic Winter Games,  2009 Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA) Men’s Volleyball Championships and the 2013 M&M Meat Shops Canadian Junior Men’s and Women’s Curling Championships.

The backdrop was now set for 2015.

It was January 31, 2015 that Mayor Melissa Blake affixed the seal from the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo and signed her signature to a proclamation announcing “The Year of Sport” for our region.

“Wood Buffalo has a history of hosting sporting events, but this year is looking very exciting,” said Blake in a news release. “We have provincial, national and international events coming up in 2015. The eyes of the sporting world will be on us throughout the year. Our state of the art facilities will be on display, but more importantly our tremendous community spirit will be in the spotlight!”

The first major event of 2015 was the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference (ACAC) Men’s Basketball Championships March 5-7 at the Syncrude Sport & Wellness Centre and hosted by the Keyano Huskies.

These championships also marked the 30th anniversary season for the Huskies, having entered the ACAC in 1985.

Joining men’s and women’s basketball conference play in 2010-2011, the Huskies would have to settle for a fourth place, falling to the Olds College Broncos 94-76.

The Huskies would play Giant Killers along the way though by upsetting two-time ACAC defending champion and CCAA No. 9 ranked Red Deer Kings 83-79, in front of more than 500 fans at Canadian National Resources Ltd. Gymnasium.

Fifth-year Huskies student/athlete Lance Wesolowski was named a tournament first team all-star. He would go on to be named Keyano Huskies Male Athlete of the Year 2014-2015.

It was in 1999 that Fort McMurray Ringette Association hosted the Alberta Ringette Championships with approximately 600 people attending. The local organization had developed several quality players including Amy Israleson, who was part of Team Alberta at the 1999 Canada Winter Games held in Prince George, British Columbia.

With the hosting of the Tim Hortons Canadian Ringette Championships March 29 – April 4, a total of 37 teams took to the ice, accessing all three arenas in Fort McMurray and also those in Fort McKay and Anzac, making it a regional affair.

Competing for National AA titles in the under 16 years-of-age grouping were 15 teams while 14 teams matched up in the 19 years-of-age side. The National Ringette League’s professionals saw the Cambridge Turbos defeating the Richmond Hill Lightning 6-2 in the Elite Eight.

Nepean Ravens shutout Team Alberta 3-0 for the Under 19 banner while Under 16 gold went to Team Manitoba edging Team Ontario 6-4.

An anticipated $2.3-million economic impact was projected for this event. The catch phrase for the championships was “Put a Ring on It!”

Such was the early popularity of curling in Fort McMurray, that in 1946 the Waterways Curling Club was formed and during the summer a one-sheet curling rink was constructed on the land owned by the Salt Plant Dominion Tar & Chemical Co. Ltd.

Two years later the good folks in the village of McMurray (the Fort had been dropped only to be reinstated in 1962) constructed their own one-sheet curling rink.

With a growing population and interest in the sport picking up, the two clubs amalgamated in 1965 and the Oil Sands Curling Club is formed with a four-sheet curling rink constructed at King Street in 1966.

Fast forward nearly 50 years and the old rink is gone and a sold out crowd is watching Team McEwen from Manitoba defeat Team Edin from Sweden for a $26,000 prize at the inaugural Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling Syncrude Elite 10 held March 19 – March 22  at the Suncor Community Leisure Centre’s CNRL Arena 2.

The men’s event, which featured Olympic medalists Team Jacobs and Team Edin, 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic gold and bronze medalists respectively and Team Gushue 2006 Turin Winter Olympic gold medalist,  brings great exposure for Fort McMurray with daily coverage on Sportsnet while the quarter-finals and finals were televised on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

“It has been our honour to host these elite men’s curlers and to welcome this new event on the Grand Slam of Curling tour to Fort McMurray,” said Tyler Spitzer, Syncrude Elite 10 Organizing Committee Co-Chair. “We owe significant thanks to all of the amazing volunteers, all of our community partners including title partner Syncrude, the Grand Slam of Curling, Rogers and Sportsnet and most especially all the community members and curling fans who came together to enjoy and support this incredible event.”

A few NHL scouts were in attendance from Tampa Bay Lightning and Vancouver Canucks to watch the 2015 Crescent Point Energy Western Canada Cup held April 25 – May 3 at the Casman Centre.

Hosted by the Fort McMurray Oil Barons , the Penticton Vees were the team to beat at the 13-game, five- team tournament which would decide which teams, be it two or three, would advance to the 2015 RBC   hosted May 9-17  in  Portage la Prairie, Manitoba.

In the end it was the Vees, winners of the British Columbia Hockey League, needing overtime to edge the Manitoba Junior Hockey League champ Portage Terriers 4-3.

With the Terriers, host of the RBC, making the finals, it allowed a third team from the Western provinces to qualify with that being the Melfort Mustangs who had defeated the host Oil Barons 4-2 in the semi-finals.

The Terriers would win the RBC on home ice a few weeks later with a 5-2 finale against Carleton Place Canadians. This was the Terriers second national title.

Football and Soccer
Thanks in part to the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup and the 2015 Pan Am & Parapan American Games grabbing the spotlight and facilities in Edmonton and Toronto respectively, Fort McMurray and more specifically, the $125-million SMS Equipment Stadium at Shell Place, played host to a Canadian Football League (CFL) exhibition and regular season game while two North American Soccer League (NASL) regular season matches also will have taken to the pitch.

First up was The Northern Kickoff which was billed as “The Most Northern game in the history of the CFL” as the Edmonton Eskimos hosted the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 2015 exhibition pre-season action June 13.

For this game, which celebrated 101 years of CFL competition, an additional 10,000 seats were erected as the SMS Equipment Stadium at Shell Place has 4,354 permanent seats.

“The four-day community celebration that is Northern Kickoff will go down as one of Wood Buffalo’s great events because it officially opened SMS Stadium at Shell Place and welcomed the Canadian Football League at the same time,” said Mayor Melissa Blake. “People will talk about that weekend for generations – this was your chance to be a part of history.

Northern Kickoff also featured a Guinness World Book Record attempt with the grand opening of Shell Place conducting the “Most Participants in a Ribbon Cutting Ceremony.”

Fort McMurray has hosted traveling individual professional sports teams in the past; in the early 1980s’ when the local Suncor Blades played the Colorado Flames, a now defunct team from the Central Hockey League.

We had never viewed a regular season professional sports contest.

All that changed June 27 when the Eskimos returned as visitor on the CFL scoreboard with the home team being the Toronto Argonauts.

FC Edmonton hosted the first of two NASL regular season games July 5 when they faced defending champion San Antonio Scorpions in what was called the Wood Buffalo Cup.

FC Edmonton returns to the Fort McMurray pitch August 2 where their opponent will be the Ottawa Fury.

“FC Edmonton Professional Soccer Club is very excited about this partnership and the opportunities that exist between MacDonald Island Park and our Club,” said Rod Proudfoot, General Manager of FC Edmonton in a media release. “Both our organizations share a desire and a passion for excellence in sport, community engagement and development of our youth. We look forward to developing a full integration of activities during this partnership aimed at supporting these principles to the benefit of all parties.”

Honourary chairman of these NASL games is the writer of this feature.

Western Canada Summer Games
Everything leads up to the 2015 Western Canada Summer Games from August 7 – August 16, which will be the largest sporting event in the region’s history.

Established in 1975, the WCSG are a “multi-sport event to provide development opportunities for amateur athletes and to help them advance their skills in a competitive, but friendly environment,” and will be held in two Phases “with over 2,500 athletes in attendance from Canada’s four western provinces and three northern territories.”

Phase 1 August 7-11 will highlight the sports of artistic gymnastics, athletics, basketball, beach volleyball, canoeing/kayaking, cycling road, cycling cross country, tennis and wrestling.

Phase II August 12-16 will showcase the sports of badminton, baseball, golf, rowing, soccer, softball, swimming, triathlon and volleyball.

The Vision Statement of the WCSG wraps up what the Year of Sport is essentially all about: 
“In sharing the energy of our great northern community, we will create a memorable experience and a sense of accomplishment for local and visiting participants.” 


Curtis J. Phillips has been a sports journalist in print/electronic mediums since 1976. A strong advocate of volunteerism, he is a founding father of numerous local events and organizations including the Challenge Cup and Wood Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. Phillips is also recognized internationally as a sports historian.