With the conclusion of the Prince Albert 2014 Saskatchewan Winter Games, the local organizers who made it all possible are busy tying up loose ends.
© Herald photo by Perry Bergson
Saskatchewan Winter Games chairman Al Dyer speaks at the closing ceremonies on Feb. 23. While finding enough volunteers proved to be a challenge, Dyer was overwhelmingly pleased with the Games.
One of the key people behind the scenes, winter games organizing committee chair Al Dyer, sat down with the Daily Herald on Monday to reflect upon the success of the games and potential lessons for the future.
Volunteer crunch affects winter games and festival alike
Given the multiple high-profile events taking place last month in Prince Albert -- aside from the winter games, February also saw the P.A. Winter Festival and the Canadian Challenge Sled Dog Race -- competition over city resources was always a potential factor.
Perhaps the most significant of these resources was the supply of local volunteers able to help out at each event.
For the winter games, Dyer said that the quality of volunteers ultimately overrode any lack in quantity.
“We had probably not as many volunteers as we would have wanted to have, but we’re extremely fortunate in Prince Albert that the volunteers we do have are very experienced and very dedicated,” Dyer said.
“So what we lacked in numbers, we definitely got in quality … What ended up happening is that many volunteers wanted to work more shifts than what they had originally committed to, simply because of the fact that they were enjoying it so much.”
Unfortunately, the relative lack of volunteers had a far greater impact on the winter festival.
“Obviously volunteers were a huge issue for us this year, as they were with the winter games,” festival president Darrell Prokopie said.
“I don’t think ultimately they had quite the volunteers they were hoping for and/or needing, but from our perspective, we took a real beating on the volunteers … We were down to a handful of people putting on the winter festival over the last few weeks.”
Among the effects of the games on the winter festival, Prokopie also pointed to the scarcity of hotel rooms and competing entertainment offered to athletes, which may have depressed turnout at indoor entertainment provided by the winter festival.
Partnership efforts between winter games and winter festival organizers manifested themselves in a number of ways, such as the former buying winter festival buttons for the athletes.
While Dyer argued that the presence of so many athletes brought greater publicity to events such as the festival and sled dog race, Prokopie said that the impact and synergy was less than he expected.
Acknowledging the positive impact of the games on the city, he suggested it would be better not to stack so many events on top of each other in the future.
“Do I think they hurt (the winter festival) somewhat? I would say perhaps at times,” Prokopie said. “But I think ultimately, the winner of it is the city of P.A., the service industry and the businesses and the hotels.
“Between all the events that were happening, I think there were an awful lot of dollars spent in our community, so ultimately P.A. is the winner. But I think each event struggled on their own to fulfil their mandate the best they could.”
“One of the best-ever games done in Saskatchewan”
For winter games organizers, however, the provincial athletic tournament was a smashing success in every sense of the word.
“There’s really not a lot of things that we could have done better by all the reports we got from all different aspects of the games -- participants, mission staff, sponsors,” Dyer said.
“The games were one of the best-ever games done in Saskatchewan, and I think you can always have done things better -- but you only know the things which you can do better when the games are done,” he added.
The organizing committee is presently pulling together a formal assessment on its games experience that it will forward to the Saskatchewan Games Council.
One of the factors Dyer cited in the games’ success was the proactive approach of the committee, which drew up contingency plans for any number of potential last-minute disasters ranging from bus accidents to a flu outbreak.
“You hope for the best, plan for the worst,” Dyer said.
Weather was a key example of such contingency plans.
The Prince Albert games had four sports that took place outdoors -- biathlon, cross-country skiing, alpine skiing and snowboarding, any one of which could have fallen victim to unfavourable weather conditions.
In the end, fortune smiled on the city during the first half of the games with temperatures ascending to the single digits. Colder weather in the second half mostly caused delays to outdoor sports.
“What ended up happening is it just delayed starts a little bit ’til it warmed up,” Dyer said. “Nine o’clock starts were pushed back an hour and a half or so to get that air temperature up a little bit.
There’s really not a lot of things that we could have done better by all the reports we got from all different aspects of the games -- participants, mission staff, sponsors. Al Dyer
“Other than that, we had blue skies and lots of sunshine … Couldn’t have planned it any better, and of course we were bookended by really bad weather in terms of really cold (temperatures). So we were pretty fortunate and Mother Nature kind of helped us along quite a bit,” he added with a chuckle.
Dyer said most of the events received very positive feedback regarding the quality of venues and competition -- not only from the participants, but also from the sport governing bodies themselves.
The committee chair pointed to two new sports, snowboarding and synchronized swimming, as among the standout events of the games.
“We were told by the synchronized swimming people that it was one of the better competitions they’d ever been to, period, and it was sort of our first kick at the can on that,” Dyer said.
“Snowboarding was just outstanding. The venue was great -- lots of people saying, especially from down south, (that) it’s hard to believe that we have a venue that nice here in our community.”
The report currently being prepared by the committee is in part a way to reflect on lessons learned in order to benefit organizers of future games.
When it comes to things that could have been improved in the Prince Albert games, Dyer cited early scheduling difficulties.
“With the changes that the school division had to face in planning with the changes in the education system, the hours of instruction and class time hours and all the rest of that, we were really held back because we couldn’t confirm dates on the games until about eight months prior to,” Dyer said.
“We were held a little bit hostage by circumstances that we had no control over, and then once the education system put the standards in place, then it was up to the school boards to try and work us into their work calendar -- and the school board did an absolutely outstanding job in working and trying to resolve that issue.”
“Hopefully future games are not going to face that same problem, because I hope that there’s going to be enough flex built into the future school year planning that they can allow for events like this,” he added.
“It’s not a challenge in the summertime because you have your holidays -- you’ve got a two-month window. But in the winter you’ve got a very short window.”
Another challenge outside organizers’ control was an accident on Highway 11 that a bus full of athletes found themselves stuck behind on their journey home.
After the RCMP closed the highway, the students and many family members travelling behind ended up spending the night at a church in Davidson.
Travel to and from the games, however, falls under the jurisdiction of the provincial sports council, whereas the local organizing committee is responsible for housing, feeding and transporting the athletes while they are inside the city.
Finding a silver lining in the episode, Dyer noted, “I’m sure that the kids and the parents will look at it as something that they’ll remember always as part of their games experience -- ‘Remember when we went to the games in P.A. and we had to stop?’ and that kind of stuff.
“Those are the kinds of things that memories are built on, and although it was an inconvenience at the time, it’s something that kids will remember as a unique part of their games experience.”
With the games now over, Dyer is currently busy with a range of post-event duties, having spent the last few days signing cheques and purchase orders.
He estimated that the official reporting process would last another five weeks, while dealing with the financial aspects of the games would likely be wrapped up by summer.
Taking a wider look at the games’ impact, Dyer believed that the increased exposure to Prince Albert was a benefit not only to the city, but also to the other local events it coincided with.
“The games were I think in all respects a success,” he said.
“I think the visibility of Prince Albert was raised extensively, especially to a lot of people from the south who’d never been to the northern part of the country -- and the fact that we also partnered with the winter festival and dog sled races and that type of thing, it gave a lot of cultural exposure to those events to people that had never seen them before.”