Zeke Thurston of Big Valley competing in the saddle bronc at CFR 45 in Red Deer at the Centrium. (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)

Looking back at our top sports stories in 2018

It’s been dubbed the year Red Deer finally became a sports destination.

2018 was marked with as many big announcements about the future of sport, as well as the arrival of many. The Canadian Finals Rodeo came to town for the first of 10 editions here and fans showed up in droves.

It was sort of the unofficial kick-starter of a national party in the area, with the Canada Winter Games, the Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association Men’s Volleyball Championships and the 2019 Allan Cup (the Senior AAA National Hockey Championship), all in the span of a few months in early 2019. Red Deer will also host the CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game on Jan. 23 to mix in a little more hockey love. While there was plenty of announcements that surrounded the sports world, there were also some local accomplishments on the grandest of stages that hit home with our readers. You’ll find a list below of what we felt here at the advocate, were the most significant.

World Juniors 2021

The announcement had some scratching their heads about how Alberta’s midpoint could host such a big event while others touted the city’s arrival as a true sports town.

There had long been rumours that Edmonton was in the running to host the 2021 tournament, but Red Deer came in under the radar as a surprise little brother set to play partner in the event. There will need to be a little lipstick put on the Centrium before then, but much like the 1995 version of the tournament that was held in Red Deer, it should be a rocking time and people are already excited.

Intoxicated curlers

This supersedes everything and anything I have ever written. It reached around the world and while locally, it wasn’t viewed as a point of pride or a big deal, the story caught fire. Radio stations in New Zealand were reporting the tale of Jamie Koe and his team of drunk curlers that were kicked out of a bonspiel. The story reached a fever pitch that no one here could have predicted. When I hit enter that night to file the story there was no way I imagined what the reaction would have been.

“We had complaints from all the other players and spectators, and it’s not acceptable in our view, and so we decided to remove the team from the bonspiel… So they forfeited the rest of the games for the rest of the weekend,” said Red Deer Curling Club Manager Wade Thurber at the time.

RDC Queens golf national title

It was one of the most unique wins in RDC Athletics history, simply because it had never been done before.

The RDC Queens golf team captured Women’s Team gold on Oct. 19 at the Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association Golf Championships at Desert Blume Golf Club, the first national golf title for RDC. With the consistent play, coupled with personal bests in competition… it’s a testament how well they were playing and how confident they were,” said Queens golf coach Scott Bergdahl.

“Just how they believed in the process of what we talked about from the very beginning… They’re super skilled and we couldn’t be happier.”

Shaye Leidenius, a third-year golfer from Ponoka led the Queens to earn silver and finished with a 16-over-par 304, just six strokes back of gold medalist Emily Romancew of the John Abbott Islanders.

Leidenius fired a two-over 74 in the final round to close out the week and the second place finish.

CFR announced for Red Deer in January

The announcement wasn’t really a shock, as most in the rodeo world knew that the agreement at Northlands in Edmonton, where the previous 44 Canadian Finals Rodeo’s had been held was over. Only a few places had bid for the right to host the CFR 45 and ended up that Red Deer would play host for the next 10 years.

CFR arrives Oct. 31

When the day finally came, the Centrium was packed to the rafters. Fans were loud, enthusiastic and the competitors embraced the move. Local favourites took centre stage throughout the six days of performances, including Ponoka’s Wacey Finkbeiner who won the bull riding and had a fantastic week. Jake Vold, who hails from Ponoka but calls Airdrie home also set a new CFR record on the second day of the performance. Overall the first year of 10 in Red Deer brought crowds of more than 43,000 people attended CFR 45 with an estimated economic impact of $20 million and $45,000 raised for local charities.

MMA World Junior Title Jett Grande

This story comes in as an underrated one, but the accomplishment was unique and interesting. Local MMA fighter Jett Grande traveled all the way to Manama, Bahrain and won gold on Nov. 20 in the junior welterweight division at the International Mixed Martial Arts Federation World Championships.

“Greatest feeling in the world. Overcame all the obstacles, felt great. You’re one of the best in the world,” the 20-year-old said.

“My goal was to win the gold medal and it was tough, it wasn’t easy. Really challenging and I knew it would be.”

Gary W. Harris Canada Games Centre opening

Red Deer College now has a true cathedral of sporting activity with the opening of the Gary W. Harris Canada Games Centre on Aug. 22. The building is unique and multi-purpose and should be a hub for sports for years to come.

“Not only will local sports be supported, but the college and community will be able to host sporting events and tournaments. This will bring provincial, national and international attention to this institution and Central Alberta,” Marlin Schmidt, Alberta Minister of Advanced Education said.

The facility will be used for five events at the 2019 Canada Winter Games; short track speed skating, badminton, wheelchair basketball, figure skating and squash.

Thurber volleyball provincials

Winning a provincial title in high school sports isn’t always worthy of a list like this, but historically what the Raiders have done on the volleyball court puts them in the spotlight. It was the second 4A Alberta Schools Athletic Association Girls Volleyball title in a row for the Raiders. It was also their sixth provincial title since 1999 and they were the first team to repeat as champions since 2011.

“Incredibly proud of them. We’ve been really working on it all season, as long as we’re looking to grow and be better. We relied on the experience and that really showed even when we were tested in the final,” Raiders coach Kirsten Dezutter said.

“The experience of the team and the support and encouragement that they gave each other was really quite incredible.”

Hlinka Gretzky Cup (Canada Game)

It’s tough to pick exactly one moment that stood out from this tournament, but none felt bigger than the Czech Republic knocking off Canada in a pre-tournament game on Aug. 4. The capacity crowd at Servus Arena heavily favoured the Canadians that night, but the Czechs scored twice in the third period to earn the 4-3 win.

We beat Canada and I think for the guys it’s one of the best things to happen. So they’re all happy. I think we can go like this into the tournament and do well,” said Czech defenceman Martin Hugo Has.

Canada went on to win the tournament, topping Sweden 6-2 in the gold medal game in Edmonton.

Alexeyev drafted

There might not have been a happier person on June 22 than Red Deer Rebels defenceman Alex Alexeyev.

Alexeyev, 18, was the first Rebel to be selected in the first round of the NHL Draft since Haydn Fleury was picked seventh overall in 2014.

It was a tumultuous year for the defender, who missed time early in the season with an upper-body injury, then broke his finger trying to catch a puck midway through the campaign.

He also suffered through an unthinkable family tragedy, when his mother died in January and he missed more than a month of the WHL season.

“She would be so happy to see me in this jersey. I hope she sees me right now,” Alexeyev said on Sportsnet after the selection.

The Rebels Russian defenceman was selected by the 2018 Stanley Cup Champion Washington Capitals in the first round, 31st overall in the NHL Entry Draft.

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Canadian forward Dylan Cozens chips a puck past Nick Malik in the Czech Republic net on Saturday in a Hlinka Gretzky Cup pre-tournament game. (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)

Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff Red Deer Rebels defenceman Alex Alexeyev was the first Rebel to be selected in the first round of the NHL Draft since Haydn Fleury was picked seventh overall in 2014.

Team Jamie Koe tweeted this image out shortly before a match at the Red Deer Curling Classic. They were ejected from the event for unsportsmanlike behaviour. (Twitter Photo)

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