Let the games begin!

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After years of planning, work and anticipation, the 2018 South Slave Arctic Winter Games officially kicked off with flashy opening ceremonies on March 18 in the brand-new recreation centre in Hay River.

Athletes from the circumpolar world – about 1,900 of them – gathered in Hay River for the opening ceremonies, including those competing in Fort Smith.

Margarita Chernilevskaia, left and Iuliia Iudina – two Arctic Sports athletes from the Yamal region of Russia – meet Kechi, the mascot for the 2018 South Slave Arctic Winter Games, at the March 18 opening ceremonies in Hay River. Paul Bickford/NNSL photos

The nine teams marched in one by one to the cheers of Hay River residents and fellow competitors.

Tyrell Wilgosh, a midget hockey player from Hay River, thought the opening ceremonies were cool and he was looking forward to the competitions starting.

“It’s pretty exciting,” he said.

When asked about his goal for the games, Wilgosh replied, “Get a golden ulu.”

Ariah Thomas, a table tennis player from Fort Simpson, also enjoyed the opening ceremonies.

“It was fabulous,” she said.

Near the end of the opening ceremonies, Jens Brinch, president of the Arctic Winter Games International Committee, declared the 2018 games officially open.

“To all the athletes and participants, I say do your best in the competitions and performances,” he said.

On behalf of the Arctic Winter Games International Committee, Brinch thanked the people who worked to make the games possible – volunteers, sponsors and members of the host society.

And prior to the declaration to open the games, there were fast-moving performances featuring music, dancing and numerous inspirational messages.

Rita Nurmenrinta, a cross-country skiing coach with the team from the Sapmi region of Scandinavia, marches into the opening ceremonies for the 2018 South Slave Arctic Winter Games.

Greg Rowe, the president of the 2018 South Slave Arctic Winter Games Host Society, recalled an attempt to obtain the games for 2008.

“With renewed vision and a lot of determination we bid on the 2018 games and here we are today,” he said.

Rowe also recognized the Town of Hay River and its recreation board for its support and the new recreation centre, which opened just days before the games began.

“This spectacular facility is one of our greatest legacies of the games,” he said.

In a video message, Premier Bob McLeod noted that Hay River and Pine Point had hosted the Arctic Winter Games in 1978.

“Now 40 years later the games are back in the South Slave region where I know the communities of Hay River, Fort Smith and K’atlodeeche First Nation will serve as tremendous hosts and show all that this region has to offer,” he said.

McLeod challenged the athletes to use the games to help develop their characters and become more confident, responsible individuals and leaders in their communities.

“To Team NWT athletes, you are our ambassadors. Represent your team and our territory with honour and pride,” he said, adding they should do their best and always compete with fairness and integrity.

Welcome messages were also played from Mayor Brad Mapes of Hay River, Mayor Lynn Napier-Buckley of Fort Smith, Chief Roy Fabian of K’atlodeeche First Nation and Kristy Duncan, federal minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities.

Hay River’s Olympic biathlete Brendan Green also sent a message – recorded at the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea – welcoming the athletes to his hometown.

Green said he is proud to say he is an alumnus of the Arctic Winter Games.

“For me, it led to a career in sport, as well as three Winter Olympic Games,” he said.

The late Pat Bobinski, a long-time Hay River volunteer who was instrumental in developing the sport of biathlon in the NWT and a long-time member of the Arctic Winter Games family, was also honoured with a special tribute.

Just before Brinch declared the games open, the Arctic Winter Games flame was delivered to him by Fort Smith’s Veronica McDonald, a multiple Dene Games gold medal winner in previous games.

The officials’ oath was taken by Hay River’s Bruce Green, while the athletes’ oath was taken by Fort Smith’s Connor Steed and Fiona Huang of Hay River.

The entertainment for the evening included the Hay River Filipino Marching Band, The JBT Jiggers from Fort Smith’s Joseph Burr Tyrrell School, the Tuktoyaktuk Siglit Drummers and Dancers and the K’atlodeeche Drummers.

In all, about 1,900 athletes are competing at the games – with 1,100 n Hay River and the remainder in Fort Smith.

Not long after the opening ceremonies ended, a convoy of about 20 large buses left Hay River headed to Fort Smith. It was accompanied by two RCMP vehicles, one at the head of the convoy and the other at the end.

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