On Friday, Feb. 15th, the Canada Winter Games will officially commence. It is one of the biggest events to have ever been staged in Red Deer and will draw thousands of visitors and national attention to our community.
The first Canada Games were staged in Quebec City in February 1967, Canada’s centennial year. The intent was to further develop Canadian athletes for national, international and Olympic competitions.
The Games were also to foster a sense of national unity, hence the Games’ motto, ‘Unity Through Sport’.
The inaugural Games were a tremendous success, despite such challenges as a snowstorm that dumped 76 cm of snow onto Quebec City. The next Canada Games were a summer event and were staged at Halifax/Dartmouth, Nova Scotia in 1969.
The Canada Games have subsequently been held every two years, alternating between Winter and Summer Games.
The first Canada Winter Games in Alberta were hosted by Lethbridge in February 1975. While Lethbridge was the official host city, two dozen southern Alberta communities were used as venues.
Meanwhile, the Alberta government began planning for an Alberta Games, similar to the Canada Games, to promote the development of amateur sport in the province.
The Alberta Branch of the Amateur Athletic Association of Canada had organized an Alberta Winter Games in Calgary in 1968. However, the A.A.A C. in Alberta folded in 1971.
The first government-backed Alberta Summer Games were held in Calgary in 1974.
However, the next two Alberta Summer Games were staged in Red Deer in 1975 and 1977. Red Deer’s reputation was now well established as a leading provincial sports community.
The first official Alberta Winter Games were staged in Banff in 1976.
There was a strong tradition of hosting provincial and national championship events in that community. The Banff Winter Festival, which commenced in February 1917, had come to be considered the annual provincial winter sports championship event by the early 1920s.
Banff made the most of its unique ability to hold swimming competitions as well as other traditional winter sports such as skiing, hockey, skating and curling.
Banff even made a bid to host the 1932 Olympics, but the award went to Lake Placid, New York instead.
The Banff Winter Festival went into hiatus during the Second World War.
While the Winter Festival was revived in the post-war years, the concept of it being the provincial winter sports championships disappeared. Therefore, the decision to hold the inaugural official Alberta Winter Games in Banff in 1976 was greeted with great enthusiasm.
Because of the wish of the Alberta Sports Council to move the Alberta Games around the province, the next Alberta Winter Games were held in Medicine Hat in 1978.
Red Deer hosted its first Alberta Winter Games in 1988 and then again in 1998. Red Deer held the Alberta Summer Games again in 2006.
A huge boost to Red Deer’s status as a leading sports event centre followed the construction of the Centrium at the Westerner grounds in 1991.
The acquisition of this major sporting and exhibition facility greatly enhanced Red Deer’s ability to stage national and international events.
The first big event held after the completion of the Centrium was the 1994 Labatt’s Brier. Shortly thereafter, Red Deer hosted the Sun Life Skate Canada International Skating Competition. It was the first international figure skating event ever held in Red Deer and attracted enormous attention.
The third big event was held at the end of December 1994 and into January 1995.
This was the World Junior Hockey Championship. Several of the main games were played in Red Deer. The real cap to the success of the tournament cane when Canada won its third straight world junior hockey championship at a sellout game at the Centrium.
Perhaps an indication of Red Deer’s continuing status as a major sports event venue is shown, not just with the hosting of the Canada Winter Games in a few days’ time, but also by the fact that the World Junior Hockey Championship will be held in our community again in 2021.