Fort McMurray healing with the help of sports

A year after a massive wildfire devastated the city, Fort McMurray is hosting an international volleyball tournament this week. It's a relatively small event, but also another sign that sports are playing a role in the rebuilding process.

Families flock back to youth hockey, baseball leagues in rebuilding city

Fort McMurray is still recovering from last year's massive wildfire, and residents are turning to youth sports as they seek a return to normalcy. (Todd Korol/Canadian Press)

A little more than a year has passed since a devastating wildfire ripped through Fort McMurray. The largest blaze in Alberta's history caused more than 80,000 residents to evacuate and destroyed thousands of homes.

Today, the city takes another small step on its road to recovery.

Fort McMurray is welcoming volleyball teams from seven countries, including Canada, as it hosts the under-21 men's Pan American Cup event (CBCSports.ca is live streaming the tournament beginning Tuesday).

By international standards it's a small tournament, but organizers say it's a chance for the city to rally around something positive.

"It was a way for Keyano College [the local school hosting the event] and the city to say, 'Fort McMurray, we're good, we are moving forward and we are open for business,'" says the college's athletic director, Jonathan Lambert.

"A year ago everybody was feeling sorry for us, but we're hoping  this event will promote the idea that Fort McMurray is back."

Sports have been an integral part of the city's slow rebuilding process.

"It brings that normalcy to everybody's life," Lambert says. "Everybody's back to work, back involved in sports. It definitely helped with the healing process."

One year later, a look at how the wildfire changed the northern Alberta city 1:25

Hockey provides a haven

Nobody know this better than Travis Galenzoski.

A year ago, as he fled his home, the president of the Fort McMurray Minor Hockey Association told me that once residents were allowed to return, "it's going to be crazy to watch us rebuild. People will be shocked by the speed."

"There's going to be a lot of effort placed into recreation and sport," he promised.

When Galenzoski returned after the fire, the arena that housed most of Fort McMurray's games was unusable. After the town was evacuated, the arena was abandoned, causing the ice pad to melt, leaving the rink a musty mess.

"People were asking, 'Will we have hockey? Will we have baseball?'" Galenzoski recalls.

"In the end we delayed the start of the hockey season for about a week, but I will tell you it felt like 10 weeks. Everybody was really keen on having a place for the kids to play so we pushed to put a program on the ice."

Galenzoski says he anticipated an eager but smaller registration pool than usual, and for good reason. Since the fire, thousands of residents have still not returned to their homes.

He's been pleasantly surprised.

"We went against all of the trends in town," he says. "The city's population is down, everybody's numbers are way down. [But] we were 14 kids short from [the previous year's numbers], which is nothing. People really needed the sport to get their lives back to normal."

Baseball fields fill up

A similar story has played out on the city's baseball diamonds. When residents began trickling back into town last summer, they didn't waste any time. With the help of other associations from across the province, the Fort McMurray Minor Baseball Association still managed to field its competitive teams. The house league soon followed.

"The first day we got the all clear to return, a few of us just started cutting grass on the fields. It hadn't been cut in so long," says Kevin Breen, the association's president. "We wanted there to be something to do when people got back."

He was right. Coming back after the fire, the league didn't charge anything to play and the fields were full.

"People were coming back and they were like, 'Oh, there's baseball on the go,' and they came out and gave it a shot," Breen recalls.

"What I was hearing from parents is that it was nice to have something to do. Not much was open. We didn't have a building or a facility. We had a field that people were able to take their kids out to in the evening and spend some time. It was nice to hear that sport was helping people."

Not surprisingly, the numbers have grown this year.

"Baseball is a summer sport, and often people say 'We'll be away on vacation too much [so we can't play],'" Breen says. "But I think people are staying home this year because they can."

About the Author

Jamie Strashin

Reporter

Jamie Strashin is a native Torontonian whose latest stop is the CBC Sports department. Before, he spent 15 years covering everything from city hall to courts and breaking news as a reporter for CBC News. He has also worked in Brandon, Man., and Calgary. Follow him on Twitter @StrashinCBC

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