CALGARY — At the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, Jan Hudec became the first Canadian skier in 20 years to reach the podium, but it was a journey that started years before at the 1999 Canada Winter Games in Corner Brook, N.L.
The games in Newfoundland and Labrador were a launching pad for the Red Deer product, an event where for the first time he felt like he could do something bigger.
It was a reality that came flooding back on Thursday while sitting in attendance at the Canada Sports Hall of Fame in Calgary as Red Deer was awarded the 2019 Canada Winter Games.
“When I got there, I realized the scope of it,” said Hudec, 33. “Young athletes, I don’t think sometimes get the recognition for all the hard work they put it … and it was one of those moments and opportunities and experiences that really showed there was people watching …
“It was really a sense of empowerment in showing that Canada and your province and your town was behind you and supporting you in what you’re trying to achieve. That goes a long way.”
These games will have a profound effect on the economy and the city’s image provincially and nationally, but the effect on local athletes may be even bigger.
The Games will feature 19 different sports with 22 events running on Feb. 8-24, 2019. They will take over the city for those two weeks while thousands of athletes, coaches and fans from across the country ascend on the region.
This is as close as Red Deer will come to hosting an Olympic Games and will outstrip any other sporting event the city of about 100,000 can host for the foreseeable future.
Hudec and his family moved to Red Deer in 1986 from West Germany, and it is where he started skiing competitively at Canyon Ski Area. He remembers the spirit of the sporting community then and the support they received. But at the time, it was about doing something with friends that was fun.
“It was such an amazing experience and I look back on it fondly,” he said. “Back then it was all about community. Usually each sport has its own community and everyone knows each other and support each other … all the ski families would rally together and work bingos and try to raise some money and slowly try to find a van and just pluck away at the expenses and try to pull everyone up on the team.”
In 1993 his family moved to Banff and he eventually qualified for the 1999 games. Since then he has forged a successful international career, winning twice on the World Cup tour in downhill, earned a silver at the world championships in 2007 in downhill and then earned bronze in Super-G at Sochi in 2014 after battling injuries the previous few seasons. But it was the Canada Games that groomed him for the international spotlight.
“It wasn’t until 2003 at the world championships that I got to experience another event that was that big with that much commotion and that much stuff going on, and it really was something that prepared me when I did get there,” said Hudec.
It’s a familiar story for Catriona Le May Doan, who emceed the proceedings on Thursday. The small town Saskatchewan native is a two-time Olympic speedskating champion and one of Canada’s most decorated athletes.
She also competed at three Canada Games — two winter (1983 in Saguenay/Lac St-Jean, Que., and 1987 in Cape Breton, N.S.) and one summer (1993 in Kamloops, B.C.). It is there where she was bit with the competitive bug and her Olympic dreams were fostered.
“My final games, I realized it was going to be my last chance, I was going to go to another, it was now or never,” said Le May Doan. “It helped me deal with stress and also failure, because I had some good races and some bad ones. It was really a stepping stone in the speedskating world for me.”
The games also give athletes, many who compete in individual sports, that true sense of regional pride for the first time. They show what it means to be part of a team and to represent their province.
“I have never gotten rid of any of my Canada Games coats or outfits, I have them all in a box with my Olympics stuff,” said Le May Doan.
“It’s something you’ve earned and you’re extremely proud to represent all of the people in your province or territory.”
Before Alberta minister of parks and recreation Dr. Richard Starke was an MLA, he was a veterinarian in Lloydminster and coached the Lloydminster Border Blades speedskating club. His son Allister Starke competed at Alberta and Canada Games, and he saw first hand the effect they have on young athletes. It is why he says the provincial and federal governments believe so strongly in continuing to put millions of dollars towards the Canada Games.
“They provide a focal point, an objective, a goal and for athletes that’s very important in their development. Everybody needs something they can aim for and provides them some motivation,” he said.
The games will also leave a facility legacy behind, and Red Deer College stands to benefit greatly from this with the construction of a health and wellness centre that was counting on a successful games bid.
The facility will include two sheets of ice — one Olympic and the other NHL sized — as well as many other upgraded amenities that will allow them to host national championships, as opposed to having to go elsewhere to win them.
“Our athletic facilities at the college are sub par,” said RDC president Joel Ward. “By leveraging this opportunity, the college can be a great supporter of the games … new facilities will be left behind as a legacy of the games.”
The college will also serve as the athletes village and a games’ headquarters. Though RDC athletes will be to old to compete, the games will be very accessible to local fans and athletes and will serve as a major recruiting tool for their future success.
“There are two things recruit good students to programs … a great program with great coaches is No. 1 and facilities is No. 2 and so now we will have both,” said Ward.