August 29, 2013 was a banner day for sports in the Northwest Territories. On that day, Team Canada nominated its Olympic short track speedskating team—the first athletes chosen to represent the maple leaf in the spring of 2014 in Sochi, Russia. Among the nominees was Canada’s number one ranked skater: NWT born-and-bred Michael Gilday. Gilday, a World Cup winner and world record holder, will enter the Games as a favourite to win an elusive Olympic medal: a first for athletes from one of Canada’s most isolated—and least-populated—regions. He will likely be joined on Team Canada by Hay River, NWT’s Brendan Green, who first wore the red-and-white as a biathlete in the 2010 Games in Vancouver.
Not even two weeks earlier, the Northwest Territories took its place amidst the rest of the Canadian provinces and territories at the Canada Summer Games in Sherbrooke, Quebec. This time, the results were less promising, and more typical. Team NWT failed to win a medal at the Games; failed to finish in the top 5 in any competition, actually. And though there is still a place for multi-sport competitions such as this, despite the result of a territory’s athletes (exposure to a higher level of competition, the life experience, meeting new friends, etc), the results must have been disappointing to the territory’s sport representatives who would like nothing more than to prove that they can compete with the rest of Canada.
Now, I’m from the Northwest Territories— a former territorial athlete, in fact—but this storyline is pretty universal across the nation. Not from the NWT, but sounding familiar to you just the same? Then you’re likely from one of Canada’s other territories or smaller maritime provinces.The idea of provincial “haves” and “have-nots” when it comes to sport is not a new one, nor are its origins a secret: larger, more populous provinces like Alberta, Quebec, and Ontario boast more athletes, more resources, easier access to tournaments – both local and out-of-town – and the types of specialized coaching that is rare to find in a smaller province or territory.
They simply aren’t playing on the same field, and everyone in the game knows it.
Yet, for every lopsided loss a smaller province or territory takes against one of its larger brethren, there’s still a Michael Gilday, a Zach Bell, a Jordin Tootoo; residents from Canada’s smallest regions that have survived—and thrived—on the national and international level. But how? How do these extraordinary talents buck the trend that seems to define their territories in sport? How do you get past the headlines like “Team NWT plays hard at Canada Summer Games“?
With three simple rules, that’s how. And luckily, I’m here to give them to you.
Rule Number 1: Choose an individual sport
What do most of the names I’ve listed above—and most of the Northwest Territories’ most successful athletes of the past decade (Denise Ramsden, Andrew Matthews, Molly Milligan, Thomsen D’Hont, even my youngest brother Devin) have in common? They all play a sport that is performed—and can be practiced—individually. One of the major difficulties of playing sport at a high-level in an area that is small in population is the difficulty it takes to find enough elite athletes to field a competitive team. In a sport like basketball, for example, it’s generally accepted that a competitive team needs no fewer than eight high-level talents, all of whom have playing styles that complement each another.
Finding that balance in a place where the best players are not only spread out geographically, but sparse to begin with (the entire Northwest Territories has nearly one-twentieth the population of the city of Edmonton) is, more or less, impossible.
However, can one transcendent talent, performing in an arena where only his or her own physical limitations compromise his or her competitive ceiling, manage to compete at a high level, no matter who’s directly surrounding them? Absolutely they can. And it’s part of the reason why the athletes from Canada’s smallest regions who have been able to “break the mold” have done so: individual greatness is greatness anywhere. To become a great team, though, you’d better have a lot of that individual greatness at your disposal.
“But wait,” you may be saying, “even the greatest talents need someone to compete against to push them to their peaks!” “How can training in isolation from your peers possibly give you the opportunity to succeed, unless you’re Rocky Balboa and all you need are mountains to run up and some wood to chop?”
Well, my friend, you haven’t yet read my second rule. And here it is:
Rule number 2: Leave home, when it’s time.
Nobody is an island. And, unfortunately, when the best competition won’t come to you, you have to go to it, wherever that may be. For my brother Devin, it was to Toronto. For Michael Gilday, it was first to Calgary, and then Montreal. The inconvenient truth that surrounds elite athletes from the territories is that almost universally, their success comes after they’ve left home. Some may consider it a bit of a “cheat,” but it’s true.
The unfortunate caveat that comes with that, unfortunately, is that travel costs to major cities from places like Yellowknife or Whitehorse are often exorbitant—as are the coaching/schooling fees once you get there. This has placed a premium on one’s financial situation once it’s time to leave. Many athletes in the Northwest Territories circumvent this by receiving funding from the territorial government, which has numerous grants available for its high-performance athletes.
It’s also possible to be sponsored by northern businesses, and herein lies, perhaps, one of the hidden advantages of being an elite athlete in the territories: small businesses in the North give, and they give regularly. Want that money, though? You’d better make sure you follow rule number three:
Rule number 3: Never forget where you came from.
Being from the naturally unique, spectacular city that is Yellowknife, myself, my initial reaction to reading that rule is that I’m not sure why anyone from the North would choose to forget where they came from.
But there’s more to this then just sentimental reasoning: giving back to the North ensures that you’ll always have the support of a small, dedicated community that is immensely proud of it’s own residents.
Standing out in a smaller crowd is much easier than a larger one: becoming the “pride of Nunavut”, for example, is much easier than becoming the “pride of Ontario.” Not only does community goodwill ensure financial support from the local community, it also ensures moral support.
There’s a symbiotic relationship to this, too: giving back to the community can help ensure the survival of sport in your home community. The aforementioned Jordin Tootoo is a prime example of this: despite his own personal issues, he’s become a role model to thousands of Nunavut youth during his NHL career. It’s only through examples like his—or Gilday’s, or Bell’s—that athletes in Canada’s smallest regions begin to believe, one by one, that they can compete with the big boys.
So play on, gents (and ladies). Take your one-sided losses with your heads held high, and be proud of your role models, in a way that only people from a small province or territory can understand. No, we may not have a treasure chest full of Canada Games medals waiting for us. But, with luck (and these three simple rules) we may have a few Olympic ones.