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DEREK MONTAGUE: Time to resurrect the Labrador High School Championship

Derek Montague
Derek Montague - Contributed

The Labrador Winter Games have come and gone again.

Even though, from my perch in Halifax, I could only watch via social media updates, it’s easy to see the value of having these games every few years. Even in a time of increased connectivity, it’s of great importance for the different regions of Labrador to come together and bond over the best bonding agent that’s ever existed: sport.

Sport is one of the few universal languages that can cut through mileage, religion, accents, and culture to reveal that, in our heart of hearts, we have more in common than we have in differences.

That is why I write this article with a heavy heart. For there was something about the 2019 incarnation of the LWG that reminded me of an incredible, amazing, once-in-lifetime event that is now long forgotten to most, except for the athletes and coaches who participated: The Labrador High School Championships.

It happened in 2002 and, sadly, never happened again. It was an event that was nearly as big as the Winter Games: all 20 Labrador high schools, no matter how small, were invited; 18 showed up. Even tiny towns like Black Tickle fielded a team.

Some schools were so unaccustomed to participating in sporting tournaments that they arrived at Happy Valley-Goose Bay sans uniforms and gym shorts but with sweat pants and T-shirts.

For many of us (including myself) it would be the biggest sporting event of our athletic lives. Much like the LWG, all athletes were required to play multiple sports. From my shaky memory, I recall playing indoor soccer, volleyball, cross country skiing, snowshoe race, table tennis, and tug of war. It’s truly a testament to how in shape we all were in the early 2000s. The curriculum back then called for an hour of gym class every day, plus a ton of extra curriculars. If I were to try such a variety of sports today in less than a week, I’d be crawling to the closing ceremonies.

The opening ceremonies set the standard for how grandiose the organizers viewed this new event. The Goose High School gym was dark with strobe lights and loud music as each team and player were introduced to the roaring spectators. As a 15-year-old, it’s enough to send a chill down your spine.

I remember being proud of that fact that me and my teammates worked hard enough to allow Lake Melville School - with a high school population of two dozen - to finish 10th over all.

Because we never played against most of these other schools before, we didn’t know what kind of competition we were up against. We amazed ourselves by making it to the semi-finals in soccer, beating two out of three teams in table tennis, and making it to the playoffs in volleyball.

As for the cross-country skiing event, boy, the organizers were sadistic with that one.  In the LWG, each team can choose one athlete to represent their community. For some unknown reason, everyone at the high school championships had to ski the five kilometres of hell. It was utter chaos; many of us never were on skis before, so there were people falling down, running into each other, and lots of cursing and swearing. I came across a guy from Red Bay during the race and, figuring we were close to last place, we decided to just ski together and chat, and cross the finish line at the same time. But when I saw the finish line on the home stretch, my competitive instincts kicked in and I booted it past my new Red Bay friend. That may sound like a jerk move, but sportsmanship wasn’t really a concept in the early 2000s.

When the points were added up from all the sporting events of the week, Cartwright came out on top. Of course they did! Cartwright used to win everything once upon a time.

But what I think of most when I think back on the championships were the people I met. It felt like everyone was just kind to each other; as though us teenagers were somehow wise enough to realize the social opportunity we had during this week, and we tried to greet as many peers as we could. We posed for a ton of pictures, hugged each other, and simply had a good time. I can’t recall a single negative interaction from the whole event.

Anyone who has lived in Labrador knows how uniquely regionalized the land is. Despite a small population, we are separated by a large geography and (especially back in 2002) difficult travel routes. This was the first time I met anyone from the most southern parts of Labrador. Immediately afterwards, I had a desire to move to Charlottetown; the people I met from there were that awesome.

Eventually, like all good things, the championship had to come to an end. But we sent it off with a fitting tribute. Following the closing ceremonies banquet, we had the greatest dance in Labrador history. No, I’m not exaggerating in the slightest. Everyone who was there will agree with me.

Imagine every athlete from the 18 schools going to the dance, plus all the other students from Goose High School. Remember this was 2002, a few years away from smartphones and social media taking over our lives. So, there were countless people packing that gym, focusing on the music and having a good time. I remember we stole every toilet paper roll from the bathrooms and threw them in the air like streamers. It was as epic as it sounds. (A 17-year belated apology to the people who had to clean up the gym afterwards).

The Labrador Highschool Championships was a major success. Everyone expected this to happen once every few years, so each new group of teens would have the chance to participate. That was the plan, but for still unknown reasons it never happened. Since the first Labrador High School Championships, an entire generation has gone from kindergarten all the way to high school graduation without the long-promised sequel ever taking place. It’s too bad.

There was nothing special about my generation. We were typical teenagers like any other. We just got lucky enough for this amazing event to happen at the right place at the right time. Every student in Labrador deserves a similar opportunity.

Here’s what I will suggest: bring it back.

With the advent of social media, it’s never been easier to fundraise massive amounts of money in a short period of time. On top of that, we are three short years away from the 20th anniversary (yikes) of the first Labrador High School Championships. The timing is perfect, if people start organizing now.

Just don’t forget to invite us alumni from 2002. I think we’d like a little reunion.

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