Arctic Winter Games speed skating records shine a light on Fort McKay

An N.W.T. speed skater made Arctic Winter Games history this week, breaking two previous records, but Sage Acorn was not the only person beaming after a week of events at the arena in the heart of the Fort McKay First Nation. 

'It's kinda the talk of the town right now,' says arena supervisor Shay Laurent

Three jubilant young men in triangle formation.
Sage Acorn, 17, hoisted aloft by his teammates at the Fort McKay Arena. (Speed Skating NWT)

A Yellowknife speed skater made Arctic Winter Games history this week. 

Sage Acorn, 17, broke two records set by Olympian Michael Gilday at the Arctic Winter Games some 20 years ago. 

Acorn won the under-19 male 500-metre race Wednesday with a time of 45.02 seconds, half a second faster than Gilday. On Thursday, Acorn broke another of Gilday's records, shaving a fraction of a second (1:12.15) off Gilday's 777-metre time (1:12.22). 

Acorn told CBC News he was "just very happy to be here and achieve what I've done." 

Three speed skaters lean into the ice.
Acorn, left, competes in the 2023 Arctic Winter Games. He set two games records this week. (Wood Buffalo 2023 Arctic Winter Games)
Man in arena.
Shay Laurent is a hockey coach and ice maker at the Fort McKay arena. (Submitted by Shay Laurent)

He even had a great chat with Gilday after his wins.

"He congratulated me on my medals and the record," Acorn said. "I grew up on the same street that Michael grew up [on], so he was joking about keeping it on the same street."

Acorn's coach, Madison Pilling, was also thrilled. 

"The whole team was just so shocked, but also just very, very proud," she said. 

Then there was the staff and crew at the Fort McKay arena. 

'I'm just amazed'

Fort McKay lies in the heart of the Fort McKay First Nation, which makes up the majority of the town's population of about 700. 

The community is perhaps best known for taking in hundreds of evacuees from Fort McMurray, about 50 kilometres away, during the 2016 wildfire. 

And all this week, it's been turned into the Arctic Winter Games' speed skating venue. 

Shay Laurent is the arena program and facilities supervisor. Normally, he coaches hockey, manages bookings and helps run a brand new hockey academy organized with the school. 

Man driving a Zamboni.
A Zamboni driver clears the ice ahead of the next race. (Crystal Mercredi)
Two smiling men in a selfie.
Nunavut Premier PJ Akeeagok with Fort McKay First Nation councillor Raymond Powder. (Submitted by Fort McKay First Nation)

This week, he was on the ice, ready to move the "pucks" that mark the speed skating oval he and the rest of the ice-making crew carefully laid out. 

Like many in the community, Laurent said he'd never seen speed skating up close before. 

"I'm just amazed at how fast they actually go." 

Laurent says kids from the town's school were invited to watch the races this week and were similarly impressed.

"I've already had kids come up to me ... saying 'hey, can we try this?,'" he said. 

On Friday, the entire stands were packed with people from the community coming out to watch. 

"We're feeling, like, ecstatic," Laurent said. "I grew up playing hockey and always around the rink but I've never really experienced speed skating, and to be a volunteer on the ice seeing it first hand, was just remarkable.

"It's kinda the talk of the town right now." 

'The kids are fearless'

"We take pride in our facility and having the reputation of having the best ice in the region," says Simon Adams, the First Nation's director of community services. 

The arena has taken on big projects before. In 2019, it served as a venue for the Alberta Winter Games. It's got an NHL-sized ice surface, which is smaller than the Olympic-size ice some speed skaters train on. 

Adams helped turn the ice into a speed skating oval with moveable tracks that can be altered for different distances and crash pads on the boards in case anyone misses a turn.

"The kids are fearless … they adjusted to that and it's amazing that a lot of the records were set, or personal bests," Adams said. 

"There's been some crashes but no one's been hurt so far."

Group shot in winter coats.
Team Nunavut's speed skaters pose for a group shot in Fort McKay, with Nunavut Premier PJ Akeeagok standing at left. (Nunavut Speed Skating Association)
Girl biting gold ulu medal.
Akutaq Williamson Bathory with her gold ulu. (Nunavut Speed Skating Association)

Two siblings from Iqaluit both won medals on the oval this week. Igimaq Williamson Bathory, 14, won a bronze ulu and his sister, Akutaq, 17, won gold. 

"They were the first medals for Nunavut in the AWG, which was very, very exciting," their mother, Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, told CBC News. 

Laakkuluk described the week as "a crazy roller-coaster of a couple days."

Igimaq went from winning a bronze medal with his teammate, Meliya Allain, on the first day, to having several falls. In the same race, Akutaq was disqualified for touching another teammate. 

The next day, Igimaq had several falls. 

"Which are very scary, by the way, because they're skating with basically knives on their feet," Laakkuluk said.

But Igimaq wasn't injured. 

"He finished his race, and then he ended up getting his personal best in the D division." 


  • An early version of this story incorrectly said that Michael Gilday's previous 777-metre record was 1:122:22. This was an error.
    Feb 04, 2023 6:58 PM CT

With files from Marc Winkler, Toby Otak