Kent Hehr is sworn in as the new Sport and Persons with Disabilities minister during a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Hehr becomes Canada’s new sport minister while his hometown mulls Olympic bid

CALGARY — An 18-year-old Kent Hehr was playing on a rotten hockey team in Saskatchewan when his hometown of Calgary was the host city of the 1988 Winter Olympics.

Canada’s new minister of sport remembers a feeling of missing out as his sister figure skated in the opening and closing ceremonies.

“I was playing junior hockey in Lloydminster, for the Lloydminster Lancers,” Hehr told The Canadian Press.

“It was the worst team in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League that year. It may have been the worst team in the history of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League.

“I remember watching from afar and thinking ‘I love playing hockey, but I kind of wish I was home for a couple days.’”

The Calgarian has been appointed the next Minister of Sport at the same time his hometown is mulling another Winter Games bid. Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi has repeatedly said a bid for the 2026 Olympic and Paralympic Games can’t go ahead without federal government support.

While it’s tempting to connect the dots, Hehr wasn’t ready to weigh in on an Olympic bid on his second day in his new job.

“Calgary city council is looking at that,” he said Tuesday. “Calgarians have to look at this and the province does.

“At this time, it would be prejudging the situation. In my view, I need to concentrate on my file and interact with this issue in an objective fashion as the city completes its process.”

Hehr takes over the dual role of sports minister and Minister of Persons with Disabilities from former Paralympic swimmer Carla Qualtrough, who was handed the department of public works in Monday’s federal cabinet shuffle.

The 47-year-old Hehr is a former junior and college hockey player rendered a quadriplegic in 1991 when he was stuck by a bullet in a drive-by shooting in Calgary. Paralyzed from the chest down, Hehr uses a wheelchair.

The Liberal MP for Calgary Centre was Minister of Veterans Affairs and associate Minister of Defence prior to Monday’s cabinet re-jig.

The Canadian taxpayer is the single biggest funder of the country’s Olympians and Paralympians, to the tune of about $200 million annually.

Own The Podium makes funding recommendations directing $70 million annually in “targeted excellence” money — about $6 million of it comes from the Canadian Olympic Committee — to sports federations whose athletes demonstrate medal potential.

OPT’s recommendations require ministerial approval, so the buck ultimately stops with Hehr now.

“With Minister Hehr, he obviously is very passionate about sport,” OTP chief executive officer Anne Merklinger said.

“I’ve met him on a couple of different occasions and he’s always demonstrated a tremendous passion for high-performance sport.”

Hehr takes on what’s been an eventful sports file in 21 months under Qualtrough.

A departmental review of how Canada divvies up taxpayer dollars among its athletes concluded earlier this year.

Half of the Olympic athletes surveyed in the review said the administration of targeted excellence funding “needs a major re-think and revisions.”

Canada’s athletes got a raise in their monthly “carding” cheques for the first time since 2004 when the federal budget increased contributions to the Athletes Assistance Fund by 18 per cent.

NextGen funding promised by the previous Conservative government came online during Qualtrough’s tenure with an extra $5 million per year going to athletes deemed five to eight years away from their peak performances.

“There’s no doubt Minister Qualtrough accomplished a great deal,” Hehr said.

“I’m hoping to continue her work and continue to move forward on making sure people have an opportunity to take part in sport. I know first-hand the importance of it to kids, to families across this nation.

“And looking at ways we can get more people involved in sport is one of those things I’m looking forward to sinking my teeth into.”

Qualtrough was considered a real ally of the Canadian Paralympic Committee given her background as an athlete and former president of the organization.

The current president believes there’s common ground with Hehr.

“He is certainly someone who is very sensitive to issues for persons with disabilities,” Marc-Andre Fabien said.

“I’m sure he is very sensitive to athletes with disabilities, so we will certainly be able to work very closely with him and have a lot good exchanges and support from him.”

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