Northern Wilds Magazine
This year's Ontario Winter Games will take place in Thunder Bay, Feb. 16-26. | SUBMITTED
Along the Shore

Ontario Winter Games come to Thunder Bay

Futsal, fencing, ringette, and wrestling will all be featured sports at the 2024 Ontario Winter Games, to be hosted over two weeks this February in Thunder Bay. The entire province of Ontario, including athletes from Toronto, Ottawa, and Hamilton, will be coming to Thunder Bay to compete in 14 different sports this month. Thunder Bay, with a population of 95,266 as of 2021, beat out the large urban centers from southern Ontario for the privilege of hosting the Winter Games.

The Games are held every two years. You’d have to think back to 1974 for the last time Thunder Bay hosted them. It’s been a while, but Thunder Bay has been on a role lately building a strong sporting event host resume.

In 2023 the city hosted the Nordiq Canada Ski Nationals—the country’s top cross-country ski competition. Now the city will be supporting an even wider framework of sports (with cross-country skiing and para-Nordic again in the mix), both indoors and out. The city is ready to shine on a province-wide scale.

Start ‘Em Young

The Ontario Winter Games are for amateur athletes ages 12-18. The Games provide top young athletes with competitive opportunities to prepare them for national and international competition.

Matthew Lawrence, games coordinator, explains that the Winter Games take young athletes to the next step in their athletic careers: “The idea has always been to prepare kids for that next level of competition. This is where they get that first opportunity to participate in a larger multi-sport Games, to feel the hype and excitement, with an opening ceremony, and the march of the athletes with all the different teams. It’s the same Olympic feeling that an older athlete would get, but in a smaller package, for younger athletes.”

With these junior athletes being at the highest level in their sport within the province, the Games will feature some fierce competition. But no fiercer than the competition to volunteer at the event.

Lawrence explains that volunteer positions have been in hot demand: “We have over 1,000 registered volunteers. We actually exceeded our request for volunteers, so we are in great shape for the Games. Thunder Bay definitely comes out with local spirit for stuff like this.”

This photo was taken 50 years ago in 1974, the last time Thunder Bay hosted the Ontario Winter Games. | CITY OF THUNDER BAY ARCHIVES

Volunteers will be serving at sporting events across the city, including at the opening ceremony, to be held at Fort William Historical Park. The ingenious “double” schedule of the Games means the ceremony will be held twice. The first set of games will be held from February 16-19 (Family Day weekend in Canada), and the second set of sporting events will go from February 23-26.

This makes it possible for more athletes, parents and supporters to attend the Games. “For us being a smaller city center, and given the size of the airport, it was a decision we came about just so that we can run a larger Games, while still being able to handle that capacity for a smaller size town,” said Lawrence.

Lawrence also credits the Ministry of Tourism, Sport, and Culture, the City of Thunder Bay, and the Thunder Bay Community Economic Development Commission through its Tourism Development Fund for releasing additional funding to subsidize athlete travel. “It’s expensive for kids to travel up to Thunder Bay. Much more so than if they were competing in southern Ontario. In this case, the larger city centers are coming to us. So as part of that, we’ve come up with some additional travel dollars to help subsidize the extra travel.”

Learn a New Sport

Once the athletes arrive, it’s game on, including for sports that are still establishing themselves in the public eye. Take futsal, otherwise known as indoor soccer. This will be only the second time the sport has been played at the Ontario Winter Games. This team game’s emphasis is on improvisation, creativity, and technique with a soccer ball. Futsal matches, like all events at the Winter Games, are free and open to the public. Futsal will be played at Lakehead University’s CJ Sanders Fieldhouse between February 16-19.

Another eye-opener is ringette. This team sport is played on ice by six players per team with skates and sticks. Ringette players use a straight stick to shoot a rubber ring into the opposing team’s net. Think hockey, but way faster. According to the Games’ website, “Ringette is a wide-open and dynamic sport often referred to as the fastest team sport on ice!” Ringette will be played at Delaney Arena in Thunder Bay’s International Friendship Gardens.

For Lawrence, “What’s really great about these Games is that a lot of our clubs, and ringette is a great example, and futsal is another, are smaller. A lot of people don’t know about them, right? So this is a real chance for us to highlight clubs that maybe people haven’t heard of locally and help them bolster that participation level and interest in their sport.”

Fencing took place at the 1974 Ontario Winter Games in Thunder Bay. | CITY OF THUNDER BAY ARCHIVES

Visitors to Thunder Bay can expect Games-themed festivities throughout the city, with a focal point being the marina. But the most important thing, says Lawrence, is to get in the stands and show the athletes your support in person. “We want them to feel that experience of people cheering for them, and that’s really how we’re hoping to transform the city—to get people in that mood to get out and support the athletes.”

One place where fans can ring some serious cow bell is the Lappe Ski Centre, just north of town. John Cameron, tourism development officer for Thunder Bay, calls Lappe “One of the top four or five Nordic skiing centers in the country.” Cameron notes that cross-country skiing is one of the key sports in the city. “A lot of it is tied to our Finnish and Scandinavian heritage,” explains Cameron.

Good For Business

Of course, the influx of athletes will provide the city with more than just good vibes. Sports tourism is business, too, and the economic impact of 1,600 athletes staying in the city over two weeks is significant.

Paul Pepe, manager of Tourism Thunder Bay, notes the direction his team has undertaken: “Winter tourism development, and winter sports tourism development in particular, helps support Thunder Bay’s growth as a true year-round tourism destination. Events such as the Ontario Winter Games support our local accommodation, transportation, culinary and retail sectors in a big way.”

And once the Games are over, athletes and their families will want to come back again to see beautiful Thunder Bay in the summer sunshine.

The opening ceremonies (both of them!) will be free community events held in the main square of Fort William Historical Park. And how many cities in southern Ontario can boast hosting the prestigious athletes’ march in a re-created fur trade post? Bring your kids to check it out and fill them with inspiration. Then take them to watch futsal or ringette. Just don’t be surprised when they start playing indoor soccer in the kitchen.

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