Lighting the torch for the friendly games

After athletes from the Northwest Territories and Yukon returned from a pathetic trouncing at the 1967 Canada Games, then-NWT commissioner Stuart…

After athletes from the Northwest Territories and Yukon returned from a pathetic trouncing at the 1967 Canada Games, then-NWT commissioner Stuart Hodgson and his Yukon counterpart James Smith started the ball rolling on a northerners-only sporting event.

Alaska bought into the idea, and the first games were held in Yellowknife in 1970, with about 500 athletes from the three contingents.

What began nearly 40 years ago as a way for northern athletes to compete against each other in northern settings has turned into something much greater indeed — encompassing the entire circumpolar region in a sports and cultural exchange.

Almost 3,000 people packed the Yellowknife Multiplex on Sunday night for the opening ceremonies of this 20th edition of the Arctic Winter Games.

Team Alberta North led the parade of athletes onto the Olympic ice surface, amid much cheering and noisemaking, followed by Alaska, Greenland, Nunavut, Nunavik Quebec, the Sami people of Scandinavia, Yamal (Russia), Yukon and finally, the host team Northwest Territories.

Approximately 2,000 athletes are competing in 19 sports over the weeklong Games.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper was on hand, sporting an Arctic Winter Games sweater, speaking briefly from behind his personalized podium, which is rumored to be lined with bulletproof Nunavut rock.

“This year’s theme, Northern stars inspired by dreams, speaks to the limitless potential of the North…. To all the participants and organizers I say: You are the brightest stars in the northern sky, and that’s why we are all here tonight. Good luck and bon chance,” said Harper.

Juno Award winning singer/songwriter Leela Gilday, a Yellowknife Dene, performed a rousing song called Rise and Shine for the athletes.

“That’s what you’ll be doing early tomorrow,” said Gilday.

The ceremonial Arctic Winter Games torch was passed across the Olympic ice by local Arctic Games Alumni spanning nearly 40 years, finishing with founder Stuart Hodgson, wearing a sealskin parka.

Hodgson, who didn’t speak, directed two members of Team NWT to light the cauldron, and then bowed deeply to much applause.

Gerry Thick, president of the Arctic Winter Games International Committee, declared the Games open, to even more cheering and applause.

Whitehorse-based breakdancers Groundwork Sessions joined Yellowknife rapper Albert “Godson” Hernandez for a couple of songs at the end of the night, pumping up the crowd with their high-energy hip-hop style.

At the last Arctic Games in Kenai, Alaska, Team Yukon finished fourth in the ulu (medal) count behind powerhouse Alaska, and strong contingents from Alberta North and NWT.

Yukon highlights at the 2006 Games were gold ulus in boys’ basketball and boys’ midget hockey, and several ulus in speed skating, cross-country skiing, dog mushing, and snowboarding.

 The Games got underway Monday at various venues around Yellowknife, and run until Saturday.