Torrential rains early Friday afternoon couldn't slow Fort Smith down as the town swelled with enthusiasm and pride, cheering on TSN crews to kick off the nationwide Kraft Celebration Tour and the sports channel’s first broadcast in the Northwest Territories.
The show went on – despite almost being relocated inside due to a severe downpour and potential lightning – with hundreds flocking to Riverside Park overlooking the Slave River rapids to make their debut on national television as the little town with a big heart.
Fort Smith beat out Whitehorse by a long shot last month after an online voting matchup to win $25,000 from Kraft to help get the community’s Centennial Arena back on its feet after a fire damaged the building in May. The money will go towards purchasing one of two portables for washrooms and change rooms to support hockey players and figure skaters.
Sportscentre anchors Darren Dutchyshen and Jennifer Hedger had the crowd – many sporting yellow foam Cheese Whiz hats – roaring Friday as the skies cleared and pelicans soared above, the sun reappearing just in time. They tossed out Kraft ball caps and danced on the massive stage before sitting down to business and delivering the top headlines in sports for their usual broadcast, topped off with some vibrant Fort Smith clips.
Part of the broadcast included a small feature on challenges for minor hockey in small communities across the North, highlighting one local who has gone the extra mile to pull off a successful hockey season year after year: Maurice Evans.
Paddlefest also received mention on the small screen as cameras followed Hedger and Dutchyshen across the Mountain Portage rapids known as the Playground in kayaks and pool toys on Thursday.
“The whitewater kayaking was definitely my favourite part. And not just the kayaking – I also got to go out on a little Nemo inflatable fish. That was fun…The rapids are amazing,” Hedger told The Journal. “I wasn’t nervous because we had some pros with us.”
For the pair’s first time north of the 60th parallel, Dutchyshen said they couldn’t have asked for a better time, with good food – they tried elk lasagna – and the best hospitality.
“We were immediately jacked up for this when they told us we’d be going to the Northwest Territories because we’d never been here before,” he said.
“And you never forget your first time,” Hedger added with a laugh.
Northern author Richard Van Camp emceed the event, infusing the afternoon with humour and keeping things running smoothly.
Kraft presented a group of local representatives with a cheque for $25,000 just before the broadcast to help cover the costs of getting the ice surface up and running again for the 2013/2014 season. Kraft also gave the town a plaque to hang in the arena once it’s fixed up.
“We couldn’t have done it without the community,” said Pam Walsh, chairperson of the Fort Smith organization committee for the Kraft tour. “This really built up community spirit and gave us a sense of hope…When we found out about the fire, we were really worried about the winter ice season.”
Walsh nominated the town for the tour to help solve the issue of the damaged arena and it was her application that was selected, making Fort Smith a finalist.
Mayor Brad Brake was ecstatic with the event’s turnout.
“This is Fort Smith’s ‘never quit’ attitude. Look at how we’ve all pulled together – it’s just great,” he said.
Some houses and many businesses throughout Fort Smith decorated their lawns and front windows with TSN and Kraft decorations to welcome the crew when they arrived last Wednesday.
“It’s been more than we could have expected for Kraft’s first time North,” Kraft representative Susan Brookes said. “This community is outstanding, the scenery is amazing and the people are wonderful.”
Food Bank donations at the entrance of the park were encouraged instead of admission. People could drop off nonperishable items into one of the kayaks, and by the end of the broadcast, Van Camp announced that all 15 kayaks had been filled with donations.
TSN packed up Friday night and hit the road again, headed for Invermere, BC – the next stop on its Western Canada tour.
The Kraft Celebration continued on Saturday on the East Coast at Morel, PEI.