Drew Williams was the MC for the NWT Sport Hall of Fame induction ceremony at the Explorer Hotel on Nov. 23 and came up with a line that summed up the evening perhaps as well as anyone could have:
“You’ll notice there are little packages of Kleenex at your tables … we figured you might need them.”
How right he was.
The class of 2018 is officially part of history as Abe Theil, Robin Mercer-Sproule and the 1970 Centennial Canoe Race team from Fort McPherson were inducted into the hall. Theil entered the hall in the builders category for both his work in building the sport of volleyball to where it is today and as a member of the board of directors for Sport North, which included a stint as president between 2001 and 2009.
In his speech, Theil said he was simply a member of a much bigger team.
“It was a team effort over the years I was involved in volleyball, which I still am, and at Sport North,” he said. “Without the other board members, staff and other volunteers who did so much work, a lot of the work wouldn’t have gotten done.”
Theil also acknowledged the role played by the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs, especially the sport and recreation division.
“They could always do more,” he joked. “But you can only do what you can with the resources you have and everything gets done with the support of individuals. That’s how things get done – government, paid staff and volunteers all working together to get things done.”
The canoe team from Fort McPherson entered into the team category, recognized for their victory in the race to celebrate the NWT’s centennial year in 1970. They were up against other teams from around the territory as well as teams from Alberta and Yukon. The race began in Fort Providence and went up the Mackenzie River with the finish line in Inuvik.
The team of captain Philip Blake, Woody Elias, Fred Vittrekwa, “Delta Joe” Vittrekwa, John Itsi and Joseph Kaye ended up as the winners.
Only Itsi and Kaye are still alive and both were on hand to accept their honour that evening.
Itsi spoke on behalf of the duo and said it was a grueling 17 days of competition.
“That summer in 1970 was one of the most exciting times of my life,” he said. “We were racing the best in the NWT. All the teams in that race were strong and were well-conditioned athletes. We had to give it our all to come out on top.”
The final inductee was Mercer-Sproule into the athletes category and she was what Williams meant when he referenced the Kleenex.
Mercer-Sproule is, without question, one of the most well-rounded athletes the NWT has ever produced as she played in several sports at a high level: figure skating, basketball, broomball, volleyball, softball and hockey, the latter of which remains her true love.
“I was basically a rink rat,” she said. “I practically lived at the Gerry Murphy Arena. I even worked the concession stand and did whatever. When I wasn’t figure skating, I became fascinated with hockey.”
It was Mike Spratt who put Mercer-Sproule in her first pair of hockey skates after one of her figure skating practices and the rest is history.
“I thought to myself ‘no toe picks, this is awesome’,” she joked. “I’m not going to fall and I’m doing good. I love this.”
For all the battles Mercer-Sproule has gone through, she’s going through perhaps the toughest of them all as she is fighting stage-four breast cancer, which has metastasized to other parts of her body, and it’s incurable.
She said the friendships she’s made over the years is what’s helping her in the fight against what she called “this stupid disease”.
“I fight as hard as I do because of what I learned from sport,” she said. “Like sports, you’re in a game where you may be winning or you may be losing but the whole time, you never give up. You give it your best the whole game. You’re not going to give in and stop playing because you may be losing. The passion to try and win is still there and you have to go out and give it your best and hope for the best outcome. I stay as positive as I can and whatever the outcome, I can honestly say I am a winner. If I lose the battle, I won because I never gave up.”