Sports are mostly TKO'd, but N.W.T.'s only sports reporter carries on

James McCarthy had been covering sports in the the N.W.T. and Nunavut for 12 years, and he's never seen a season as devastated as this one.

'Spare a thought' for back-to-back Kugluktuk Grizzlies soccer champs who won't be able to defend this year

James McCarthy interviews Agnes Cockney during the 2017 North American Indigenous Games. McCarthy has been covering sports in the North for NNSL Media for about 12 years. (Aboriginal Sports Circle NWT)

Sport in the North is on the ropes so far in 2020. It's the middle of the 4th in a 12-round match, and the COVID-19 pandemic is ahead on points on any judge's card. 

So far in 2020 it's a season of would-have-beens: the Canadian North Hockey Tournament would have been last weekend, and the Balsillie Cup Old Timers hockey tournament the weekend before; two of the largest youth sporting events in the N.W.T. and Nunavut would have been underway over the next two weeks — Jr. and Sr. Super Soccer — but both have been cancelled; 2020 was also an Arctic Winter Games year, one of the earliest major events to become a would-have-been.

With sports off for just about everyone in the North, there is one exceptional standout.

The only dedicated sports reporter in the N.W.T., James McCarthy has been writing weekly sports news and columns for three newspapers and several affiliate weeklies in the NNSL Media group of publications for about 12 years — and his deadlines haven't changed.

"In all the years I've been covering sports in this part of the world, I've never seen anything like it," McCarthy said.

Anyone who follows amateur and youth sport in the N.W.T. or Nunavut knows who McCarthy is. If he's not on the sidelines taking photos and interviewing athletes and coaches, he's on the phone sorting out what went down in sport across the North — every day. 

But what does a sports writer do when it seems there's nothing left to write about?

"Well there are still some things that are happening," McCarthy said on a phone call, working from home in Yellowknife. "We have some young hockey players who are signing for different teams because … they're expecting there will be a hockey season starting around late August for training camps and players are starting to think about that."

He's been delving into past sports highlights as well, and is running a Greatest of All Time pool that pits 16 past heroes of northern sport against one another in elimination rounds with readers voting on who moves on.

"[It] was something I've actually had in mind for a while, just waiting for the right time or the rainy day.… And so here we are. This is the rainy day."

McCarthy said this interrupted season can have an impact on young athletes who might age out of future competition, or on athletes who would have counted on cancelled tournaments in the south for exposure and practise.

"The YK Minor Hockey Association had a bunch of teams all set to go to Edmonton on the spring break for the annual Spring on Ice [tournament]," he said. Good results there could have caught the eye of the right person in hockey leading to conversations with parents about further development.

"It's certainly affected their development or certainly affected their chances of taking that next step…. Who knows how long it will go… and what the lasting effects will be."

Extended hibernation for Kugluktuk Grizzlies

Joey Phillips, far right, with the Kugluktuk Grizzlies, who won't be defending their Super Soccer Championship this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted by Joey Phillips)

The cancellations of Jr. and Sr. Super Soccer this year are a big deal. Besides drawing hundreds of players, coaches, families and fans to Yellowknife from across the N.W.T. and Nunavut, the tournaments are the highlight of the year for many players.

Perhaps no more so than for the Kugluktuk Grizzlies — they were poised to defend back-to-back titles in the Grade 6 division.

"We were all devastated," said Joey Phillips, the team coach and a physical education teacher in Kugluktuk, Nunavut.

"It was really hard for us because we practiced twice a week and we've done it since August and we were all ready to go and we thought we could go in and we were pretty sure that we could win again."

It can cost more than $20,000 in air fare just to get a team to the Yellowknife tournament. Fundraising was complete: flight tickets, accommodations and vehicle rentals had all been booked.

The team had everything refunded, so they're in a good position for next year. But nothing can make up for what's been missed.

Phillips said organized sport is crucial in small northern communities.

"A lot of these kids are never going to get the chance to go and play outside of this community and go and work as a big team [again this year]," Phillips said. "I have kids who look forward all year round just for this one chance to get out and go … and play as a team."

He said the kids have been understanding of the cancelled tournament: "They're all like, 'It's better safe than sorry and we don't want to endanger our families.'"

Phillips said that all players who made the team this year will automatically qualify for next year's tournament, a silver lining perhaps.

"I spare a thought for the Kugluktuk Grizzlies," McCarthy said.

"Champions always want to come back and defend those titles ... unfortunately they won't get a chance to do so ... nor will anybody else."


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