The Arctic Winter Games is a high profile circumpolar sport competition for northern and arctic athletes. The Games provide an opportunity to strengthen sport development in the participants’ jurisdictions, to promote the benefits of sport, to build partnerships, and to promote culture and values. The Games celebrate sport, social exchange and cultures. The Games provide an opportunity for the developing athlete to compete in friendly competition while sharing cultural values from northern regions around the world.
In 1967, Stuart Hodgson was the commissioner of the Northwest Territories. He was in Quebec City to cheer on NWT athletes at the Canada Winter Games. While watching the NWT badminton team compete, he stepped out briefly to use the facilities. By the time he returned it was all over.
His sense of disappointment was shared by Cal Miller, the financial advisor to the equally out matched Yukon team. It was Cal who suggested a distinctly northern games - as a forum in which athletes from the "circumpolar North" could compete on their own terms - on their own turf - and even in their own sports. It took one phone call and Alaska Governor Walter Hickel was also on board. The papers were signed - and the first Games were held in Yellowknife two years later - with three contingents from: the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Alaska.
Mr. Hodgson passed away in December at the age of 91.
It doesn’t take long to figure out that the Arctic Winter Games are uniquely northern – a real good illustration hangs around the neck of every winning athlete.
Athletes at the Arctic Winter games are the only ones in the world to compete for gold silver and bronze ulus. The ulu, in its traditional form is indigenous to the Arctic. It’s a woman’s skinning knife with a central handle and a semicircular blade. The blades were made from slate and bone. The handles, of antler, wood or ivory were often crafted into identifiable works of art.
Ken McKinnon, the first President of the Arctic Winter Games' International Committee recognized that to make the Games stand out from any other competition, they would have to build on the uniqueness of the north and the cultural ties that bind northerners together. The ulu offered a perfect medal – a symbol of the North that is almost as well known as the Polar Bear and one that has come to represent excellence in northern athletic performance.
More Than Just Sports
At every Arctic Winter Games, the Arctic Sports and Dene Games offer a unique display of cultural exhibition and tremendous athleticism.
They were originally developed, not as sporting events or competitions but as training tools to mind and body for the rigors of living and surviving in the North.
Each test an athlete’s strength mental focus and patience. Inuit games range from the two-foot high kick combining power, coordination and control to the brute strength and endurance of the knuckle hop. If it sounds painful, your right. The ability to withstand pain could — and often did — save lives in our harsh Arctic climate.
The Dene games include events like the snow snake – a technique for hunting caribou where a spear is thrown underhand along the ground. The object of the stick pull, traditionally, was to build arm strength for fishing and hunting. The pole push, was practiced for hauling canoes.
A Wray of Hope
In 1988, the games in Fairbanks had just finished; and with only three jurisdictions involved, the interest and excitement was gone. Alaska was threatening to pull out.
At a special meeting to consider the future of the Games, the GNWT's Gordon Wray advocated expansion and change. He spoke strongly about more contingents; Alberta, Greenland and northern Quebec were on his list.
Other organizers and political leaders chimed in with ideas like increasing the cultural component of the games, placing more emphasis on Arctic Sports, adding Dene Games and focussing the games on youth.
Led by Gordon Wray, games organizers and politicians decided that the games were worth saving.
The original symbol of the Arctic Winter Games was three interlocking circles outlined in white on a blue background. PJ Webster is credited with coming up with the design for the first games in 1970. He took home $100 for his concept of three rings representing the three participants – Alaska, the Yukon and the NWT.
As more contingents signed on, organizers had to rethink things – they decided that the rings would represent the three components of the games – sports, culture and friendship or social interchange.
In 1994 a colored ribbon was added representing the northern lights. Nine years later, the background was changed to black – reflecting the darkness of the North and a white border added around the entire logo symbolizing the 55th parallel and circumpolar North.
From 3 to 9
The first Arctic Winter Games in 1970 featured only three teams: the Northwest Territories, Yukon and Alaska.
Northern Quebec participated on and off beginning in 1972; even hosting the Games in Schefferville in 1976.
But in 1980, 1982, and 1984 the Games were back to the original three and things were getting a little stale.
After the 1988 Games in Fairbanks Alaska, a special meeting was held to consider whether there was even any future left for the AWGs. It resulted in an invite to Greenland, and Russia and the welcoming of a full new partner in Northern Alberta.
In 2000 Northern Quebec returned to the games as Nunavik alongside Nunavut. Two new contingents showed up in 2004: the Sami people from northern Scandinavia and the Province of Yamal, Russia.
That brings the total to nine contingents from across the circumpolar North that will compete in this international event.
The Hodgson Trophy
At each Arctic Winter Games, the Hodgson Trophy is presented to the contingent whose athletes best exemplify the ideals of fair play and team spirit.
The distinctive trophy is a piece of Inuit artwork donated by NWT Commissioner Stuart Hodgson. It was introduced in 1978.
It is an engraved narwhale tusk mounted on a soapstone base. Near the top, a soapstone bear clings to the tusk, symbolizing those participants who are "reaching for the top" in competition and fair play.
The actual Hodgson Trophy is kept on display at the Canada Games Centre in Whitehorse. What is presented to the winning contingent is actually a framed photograph of the trophy.
Individual members of the team also receive a distinctive pin in recognition of their accomplishment.
The NWT has been awarded the Stuart Hodgeson Trophy twice.
1970 Yellowknife, Northwest Territories
1972 Whitehorse, Yukon
1974 Anchorage, Alaska
1976 Shefferville, Quebec
1978 Hay River / Pine Point, Northwest Territories
1980 Whitehorse, Yukon
1982 Fairbanks, Alaska
1984 Yellowknife, Northwest Territories
1986 Whitehorse, Yukon
1988 Fairbanks, Alaska
1990 Yellowknife, Northwest Territories
1992 Whitehorse, Yukon
1994 Slave Lake, Alberta
1996 Chugiak / Eagle River, Alaska
1998 Yellowknife, Northwest Territories
2000 Whitehorse, Yukon
2002 Nuuk, Greenland & Iqaluit, Nunavut
2004 Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (Fort McMurray), Alberta
2006 Kenai Peninsula Borough, Alaska
2008 Yellowknife, Northwest Territories
2010 Grande Prairie, Alberta
2012 Whitehorse, Yukon
2014 Fairbanks, Alaska
2016 Nuuk, Greenland
2018 South Slave Region (Hay River & Forth Smith) Northwest Territories
2020 Whitehorse, Yukon - Canceled due to COVID-19 Pandemic
2024 Matanuska Susitna Borough, Alaska