Fort McMurray leaders hope sports can help town heal

Kevin Breen shouldn't be thinking about baseball at a time like this.

It's been nearly a week since the raging wildfire in Alberta forced Breen, his wife and two teenage sons to evacuate their home in Fort McMurray. They're safe at his in-laws' house in Edmonton, but the news from home is not good.

"My house is gone. I've received picture confirmation of that. It's just the way it goes," Breen says matter-of-factly. "I've got a lot of family there.  A couple of us know we've lost our homes and others are waiting to hear."

Breen has no doubt he will rebuild, that his city will recover and thrive. But the president of the Fort McMurray Minor Baseball Association is worried about other things.

This should be a celebratory time — the beginning of a new baseball season, with more than 500 children registered and excited to play.

"[Last] Monday was supposed to be our opening ceremony, but the smoke moved in and we had to think about the safety of our athletes so we postponed it," Breen says. "Then Tuesday things took a turn for the worse."

It was then that the Breens, along with more than 80,000 Fort McMurray residents, were forced to flee their city. Since then, more than 160 fire crews have been fighting tirelessly to save the city. Although hundreds of homes were lost, it's estimated that 85 to 90 per cent of the town is intact. At the same time, the electrical grid is still not fully serviceable and there is no word yet on when residents may be able to return.

While Breen at least knows the fate of his house, he says the condition of the city's main baseball facility — home to six diamonds — "hasn't been assessed." But he's heard it's in "good shape" and most of the association's equipment is stored in a cinderblock building.

Community spirit

Even at a time like this, baseball is never far from the mind in Breen's family.

"We weren't with one of my sons during the evacuation because he was in high school on the other end of town," Breen says. "We're packing up the house, we only have a few minutes, and I asked is there anything you want, and all he wanted was his baseball glove.

"It's a big part of our lives for both of my boys. My younger one doesn't have his glove, it's at the facility, so he's holding on to hope that the facility is OK and he will get his glove back."

Once residents get the green light to come back, Breen says the focus will be on "returning a sense of normalcy" to the city, and that includes bringing youth sports like baseball back online as quickly as possible.

"In Fort McMurray the baseball, the hockey, the soccer... they're all like little communities of their own," Breen says. "We run from work to home, get the kids and then we run to the arena or the ball diamond. That's how we live our lives. It's a fast-paced community and people need something to make things feel normal."

In the meantime, there has been an overwhelming response from Alberta's baseball community to accommodate Fort McMurray's players.

"We've been contacted by at least a dozen associations saying if one of your players shows up here just say they're from Fort McMurray," Breen says. "We will find them a place to play, to practice, get them gear. It's been unbelievable."

Over the weekend in Edmonton, Breen says about 15 kids from Fort McMurray were invited by a local organization to come and take batting practice and enjoy a barbecue.

"It was nice just nice to be at the diamond with people you know. You almost forget."

'Did this really just happen to us?'

Getting back to normal is also on the mind of Travis Galenzoski. The president of the Fort McMurray Minor Hockey Association, his wife and two children fled to Lac La Biche last week, just before the mandatory evacuation.

Galenzoski says it was a "traumatic time" but he also realizes he's lucky. The Timberlea neighbourhood he lives in was virtually untouched by the fire, and it also appears the city's four main arenas were largely unaffected.

Things aren't easy. though.

"The gravity of the situation is starting to sink in. What just happened? Did this really just happen to us?" Galenzoski says. "Five years ago when Slave Lake [was hit by a wildfire] I remember saying I wonder what those people must feel like not having a home, and here we are living it. It's kind of surreal."

The hockey association was supposed to hold its annual general meeting last Thursday. Instead it's been pushed back to the fall. Galenzoski says the focus of everyone he`s spoken to is ensuring the league's 1,200 kids are on the ice by that time. He says there has been tremendous support from other associations across Alberta to make sure that happens.

"They understand how important hockey is in their community and how important it is in our community," Galenzoski says. "We need to figure out what hockey is going to look like and how we're going to get people back on to the ice. It's a place people go to take their mind off of losing their homes, people being out of the city still. There are lots circling around right now."

Galenzoski and Breen can`t wait to return to Fort McMurray, to help contribute to the return to normalcy both men agree is so important in helping their city heal.

"When people get back, if we can have some kind of season in the fall, if families are back and rebuilding, we are going to try and supply something for them. No question," Breen says.

Galenzoski echoes that spirit of determination.

"I know people are going to come back, and when they're allowed we're going to be hair straight back to get the community back on its feet. I have no fear. There's going to be a lot of effort placed into recreation and sport.

"It`s going to be crazy to watch us rebuild. People will be shocked by the speed."

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