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A year that started in Niagara with no games had athletes from across Canada celebrating by the time August rolled around

Unfortunately, Ontario couldn’t celebrate like it did in 2019 when the clock struck midnight and heralded this year.

After nearly two years of recurring pandemic restrictions that made any time without masks and physical distancing the good old days, the people of this long-suffering province – especially sports fans – were hoping for a faint ray of hope at the end of the tunnel.

Of course that didn’t happen.

As the calendar flipped from 2021 to 2022, Ontario was on the verge of another province-wide lockdown, this one lasting about a month and courtesy of the Omicron variant.

High school sports were by far the biggest casualty as Ontario’s championships in boys’ basketball, girls’ volleyball and hockey were canceled for the second time in as many years. Curlers and snowboarders were unlucky, as were skiers.

But for hockey leagues coming out of a 2020-21 schedule with no games, things weren’t back to normal. While the Ontario Hockey League season began with no entry restrictions, arenas such as the Meridian Center in St. Catharines have been closed to fans during the lockdown. After drawing an announced crowd of 4,468 on Dec. 11, 2021, their last game before the restrictions, the Niagara IceDogs played five games without fans, three with just 500 in attendance, before the cap was relaxed to 50 percent of capacity.

Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League teams, including six based in the Niagara region, saw no action for almost a month after the province announced on Jan. 3 that all indoor sports and recreation facilities would be closed until Jan. 26 would be closed.

Thankfully, hockey fans didn’t stay away after restrictions were lifted. On April 16, announced attendance for the IceDogs’ last home game in a non-playoff season was 5,300, a sell-out.

Deep playoff runs from the Golden Horseshoe Conference champions St. Catharines Falcons and the Western Conference top team, the Chatham Maroons, also didn’t go unnoticed. The Falcons played their final game at Jack Gatecliff Arena in front of 1,108 fans and two nights later won the Sutherland Cup away from home, much to the dismay of 2,235 at Chatham Memorial Arena.

The Falcons’ second Ontario Junior B Championship and first since 2012 was among the highlights of a sporting year that began with so much uncertainty. With positive tests a pervasive threat, leagues began penciling schedules, and doing so wisely.

The 2022 Summer Games in Niagara, Canada made front-page headlines at the national and provincial levels, not just the regional level. Niagara welcomed more than 5,000 athletes, coaches and their families from across Canada for a celebration of amateur sport.

Individuals and teams from 10 provinces and three territories competed in 17 sports and 20 disciplines as the quadrennial games were held in Ontario for only the third time and for the first time in 21 years.

Hosting the games and making visitors feel welcome from coast to coast was a team effort. Eight parishes in the region hosted competitions in at least one sport, with Welland being the venue for eight and St Catharines and Thorold the venues for seven and six, respectively.

Even Toronto was there when the Etobicoke Olympium hosted the 3m and 10m events.

In sporting terms, the Niagara Games were in some ways a whole new ball game and in others a much older one.

Rugby sevens were introduced to the lineup of games, with action taking place at Alumni Field on the University of Brock campus. Indoor lacrosse was reintroduced and played at Canada Games Park in Thorold for the first time since 1985.

A new sport and the return of an old one wasn’t the only story made in the region in August 2022.

At Welland Stadium, Jaida Lee, a 16-year-old pitcher for Newfoundland and Labrador, became the first woman to attend a baseball game in the 55-year history of the Canada Summer Games. At Canada Games Park, wrestler Eekeeluak Avalak continued his win over Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Zubin Gatta in the men’s 52-kilogram semifinals by defeating Alberta’s Fred Calingay to win Nunavut’s first-ever gold medal at the Canada Summer Games.

Looking back on the past year, despite the setbacks at the beginning of the year, there was still a lot to celebrate in sport. Even though we couldn’t celebrate like we did in 2019, there was still reason to celebrate.

We hope next year we can all join in a standing ovation for normalcy like schedules written in ink.

Happy 2023!

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