Thompson residents glad to have cause for celebration as preparations underway for Manitoba Winter Games

The Manitoba Winter Games, which involve nearly 2,000 athletes and up to 1,000 volunteers, are coming at a time when Thompson needs something to celebrate.

Facing tough economic times, northern city looks forward to 2018 Games and legacy they'll leave

2018 Manitoba Winter Games co-ordinator David Martin stands in front of the new retractable seating in the Gordon Beard Arena at the Thompson Regional Community Centre. The new seats increase the rink's capacity from 50 to 200. (Brett Purdy/CBC)

Work is well underway in Thompson, Man., to upgrade hockey rinks, the curling club and the local ski hill as the northern city prepares to host the 2018 Manitoba Winter Games in March.

The Games, which involve nearly 2,000 athletes and up to 1,000 volunteers, are coming at a time when Thompson needs something to celebrate.

The city, approximately 650 kilometres north of Winnipeg, is facing economic challenges with more expected job losses at Vale Canada, one of Thompson's largest employers. The mining company announced it will close its nickel smelting and refining operations in 2018, affecting up to 500 workers in the city of just over 13,000 people.

Thompson Mayor Dennis Fenske said the Games will be a joyful distraction.

"It's just the atmosphere that the kids bring, the spirit — it just sort of reinvigorates you to be excited about the times, even though we do have some economic impacts around us," said Fenske.

That sentiment is echoed by Thompson resident David Martin, who is co-ordinating the Games.

"It's great to be able to show that we have the resources to execute this and also that there is more to the North than resource-driven opportunity. I think the payouts from this will go well into the future," said Martin.
Fifteen-year-old Reid McDonald talks technique with ski coach Scott Luxton. Luxton and other volunteers hope to re-establish a competitive ski team in Thompson before the 2018 Manitoba Winter Games. (Brett Purdy/CBC)

Martin is seeing those payouts first-hand. He took on Winter Games co-ordinator job in May, a few months after Thompson took over the Games from Virden, Man., which backed out of hosting because of a lack of volunteers.

Thompson will host the Winter Games — held every four years — March 4-10. Events include archery, badminton, cross-country skiing, curling, figure skating, gymnastics, hockey, ringette, speedskating, wrestling and table tennis.

Martin said despite the condensed time frame to get ready, the improvements being made at some of the local facilities and the benefits of exposure to the events will last another generation.

"This is going to play well into the future for the youth of Thompson, both today and years down the road.… I think it's really going to cycle some interest among the youth to get more involved in sport and generate more recreational activities in the North."

Thousands of dollars have already been spent on upgrades at venues around Thompson.
The curling club is housed at the Thompson Regional Community Centre, the main venue in Thompson and also home to two hockey rinks and a gym. (Brett Purdy/CBC)

More than $4,000 has been spent on the curling club alone, including money for new lighting, scoreboards and carpeting.

The two hockey rinks at the Thompson Regional Community Centre also get new light fixtures and fresh paint, and the heaters will get an upgrade. In the smaller of the two rinks, the original wood stands — which used to seat about 50 people — have been replaced with new retractable seats which can accomodate 200 people.

Martin said it's been great to see all of the improvements in the different venues and joked that the rink's benches did not owe anyone anything.

"It was often said that they were made with wood, but they were held together by layers of paint on them. That being said they served the community well but [the new seats] will certainly go beyond those years," said Martin.

New ski team jumps off from Games' momentum

Just in time for the Games, the local ski club at Mystery Mountain Winter Park — which will be hosting the alpine skiing events — is poised for what could be the volunteer organization's best year in some time.

A fire in October 2014 burned a storage structure, along with all of the snow-making and brush-grooming equipment inside. That was followed by a bad year for snow conditions, which caused the hill to have a short operating season.

New grooming and snow-making equipment purchased with legacy funding from the Games and insurance money — along with a big push from volunteers and favourable weather this year — mean the hill will open on Saturday, the earliest opening day in years.

Kathryn Windeler, who runs the ski club, is thrilled with the response from volunteers this year.

"All the volunteers were working out there all summer long. Probably since the end of August there's been work parties going on out there. As soon as it got to –10, we started making snow. We've gotten lots of snow in the last week or two, this will be our earliest opening in the last five years."

Reid McDonald, 15, loves skiing and is planning to compete for a spot on Thompson's new ski team this January. (Brett Purdy/CBC)

Windeler added that the resurgence at the hill coincides nicely with the Games. She said the club has been having a difficult time getting new members and families involved. But with the excitement around the Games, the club is going to run a race clinic in January and hopes to re-establish a competitive ski team.

"Once that gets going and the kids get back involved in the racing and they've raced other people in other regions of the province, we're hoping that it's something that will continue year after year," said Windeler.

Reid McDonald is one of the young people the club is recruiting to compete for a spot on a new team. The 15-year-old said there are some good local skiers and while he expects competition to make the team will be tough, he hopes to represent the North.

"It would be pretty awesome because Thompson used to have a ski team a long time ago and they haven't had one for years, and they're just starting to get back into it," said McDonald.

Volunteers needed

Despite all the upgrades and excitement around the Games, Martin said the one thing still needed is volunteers.

"It's important that everyone understands that if you can only volunteer for four hours, which is our minimum shift — once out of the six days — perfect, that's all we need, really."

Martin estimates they will need 800 to 1,000 volunteers for the different venues, events and athlete villages. He said there are currently 315 volunteers registered.

The Manitoba Winter Games, which involve nearly 2,000 athletes and up to 1,000 volunteers, are coming at a time when Thompson needs something to celebrate. 3:13

About the Author

Brett Purdy

CBC National Field Producer

Before becoming the field producer for The National in Winnipeg, Brett was a video journalist with CBC Manitoba, filing for TV, online and radio. Brett has been in broadcasting since 2004, spending time with CTV and Global Winnipeg. Brett also worked as a producer in the Northwest Territories for two years, where he produced documentaries for national broadcasts about the Inuvialuit people in Canada's western Arctic.