Canada Winter Games offer Island athletes a shot at glory

If this is Canada, it must be winter. Using its natural advantages on snow and ice, Canada is one of the few nations that performs better in the Winter Olympics than it does in the Summer Games.

Among Canada’s Winter Olympic gold medallists, the heady likes of Sidney Crosby, Hayley Wickenheiser, Catriona Le May Doan, Cindy Klassen, Kaetlyn Osmond and Comox’s Cassie Sharpe got their first taste of a multi-sport experience at the Canada Winter Games.

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The 2019 version begins Friday in Red Deer, Alta.

Although the Island is better known for producing athletes along the Canada Summer Games pathway to the Summer Olympics, there are still 35 athletes, coaches or officials from the Island and Gulf Islands named to the B.C. team to the 2019 Red Deer Winter Games.

The Canada Games, like the Olympics, alternate every two years between summer and winter editions. A total of 45 Island athletes won 65 medals at the last Canada Summer Games at Winnipeg in 2017.

Because there aren’t enough winter sports, some summer sports are added to the agenda of the Canada Winter Games to fill out the roster to 150 events in 21 sports.

That’s why you have the quirk of Summer Olympic medallists Nicolas Gill, a judoka, and boxer Lennox Lewis listed as Canada Winter Games alumni.

Island athletes falling into that category in Red Deer include judokas Dakota Webb of Victoria, Anthony Henry of Campbell River and Isabella Greene and Korin Gardner of Nanaimo, badminton player Antonio Li of Victoria, boxer Jerome Leroyer of Nanaimo, wheelchair basketball player Ryleigh Bissenden of Victoria and synchronized swimmers Kaitlyn Aylesworth, Mara Lambert-Wilson of Victoria and Hannah Proud of Nanaimo.

But the majority theme of the Red Deer Winter Games is, well, winter sports, and there will be plenty of Island action on snow and ice. That includes Port Alberni figure skater Kari Trott and curlers Chanelle Meeres and Gracelyn Richards of Courtenay and Keelie Duncan of Comox.

The generation that grew up skiing and boarding on Mount Washington and that exploded onto the international scene with four athletes at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, including gold medallist Sharpe, is being followed up by a GenNext in Red Deer that includes cross-country skiers Tallon Noble of Courtenay and Jessye Brockway of Mill Bay.

A total of 3,600 athletes, coaches, managers and support staff have gathered in Red Deer from 10 provinces and three territories. British Columbia’s delegation includes 251 athletes, 46 coaches, 29 managers and technical staff, along with 23 mission staff.

B.C. placed third behind Quebec’s 141 medals and Ontario’s 111 when it hosted the 2015 Canada Winter Games in Prince George, with 88 medals (21 were gold).

Hockey player Micah Hart of Saanichton, now on the Canadian national women’s team and looking to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, carried the B.C. flag into the opening ceremony of the 2015 Prince George Games.

That honour tonight in Red Deer goes to another hockey player, Fin Williams of North Vancouver, who is a prospect for the Swift Current Broncos of the Western Hockey League.

“It means a lot to me and my family. It’s an event that’s bigger than hockey,” said Williams, grasping the enormity of the moment in his young career.

The WHL is well represented among western provinces in Red Deer. The Victoria Royals have six prospects competing in the Games’ hockey competition, including Island products Nolan Bentham of Victoria and Cage Newans of Parksville for B.C.

The other Royals prospects are goaltender Keegan Maddocks playing for B.C., forward Matthew Hodson for Saskatchewan and forward Trentyn Crane and Roux Bazin for Manitoba.

Current Royals defenceman Scott Walford had a starring turn for B.C. at the 2015 Prince George Games. Walford two years later was selected in the third round of the 2017 NHL draft by the Montreal Canadiens. Walford has been a mentor to Bentham, who idolized his fellow blueliner while growing up in Victoria.

“Scott told me to take time to soak in the experience, and I’m going to watch other sports with any down time we get,” said Bentham, the Royals’ first-round WHL bantam draft selection in 2018.

This is the first time for most of these athletes to be in a multi-sport Games situation with athletes from other sports living in a common village and eating at a common dining room.

“I am so honoured to be on the B.C. team. It’s going to be a great experience beyond the hockey,” said Bentham, a graduate of the Racquet Club.

Newans, a forward with the North Island Silvertips in Midget, concurred.

“It’s going to be so exciting with all the other sports,” the Oceanside minor hockey graduate said.

But their own performance matters most. For almost all the players, this will be their first experience playing for a representative provincial team.

“We’re up against the best [15-year-olds] in the country from all the provinces,” Newans said. “The best advice I’ve been given is to play your game and don’t change. Always be yourself, no matter the level.”

GAMES NOTES: The next Canada Summer Games are in 2021 at Niagara Falls, Ont., and the following Winter Games in 2023 on Prince Edward Island.

cdheensaw@timescolonist.com

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