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Wade Sumpter of Fowler, Colo., competes in the steer wrestling-event during the 101st Calgary Stampede on July 14, 2013. (KEVIN VAN PAASSEN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Wade Sumpter of Fowler, Colo., competes in the steer wrestling-event during the 101st Calgary Stampede on July 14, 2013. (KEVIN VAN PAASSEN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

in the saddle

Stampede officials stand proud after hell and high water came and went Add to ...

With four words – Hell or High Water – Bob Thompson summed up the essence of the 101st Calgary Stampede. He also helped launch more than 150,000 T-shirt sales, which raised $2.1-million in Alberta flood relief, a remarkable accomplishment for a Stampede that might have slipped beneath the waters.

As workers began tearing down the midway and concession booths Monday, Stampede officials reviewed a 10-day span that saw the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth barge ahead minus only the four major concerts that were cancelled when the lower seating bowl of the Scotiabank Saddledome was filled with river water.

Mr. Thompson, the Stampede president and chairman who vowed the event would go on, even when the grounds were badly flooded three weeks ago, said he was “thrilled” the 2013 edition drew 1.133 million people. Officially, that was a drop compared with 2011 when the total was 1.174 million. It was also a 20-per-cent decrease compared with 2012 when the Stampede celebrated its centennial and record crowds.

But the attendance dip didn’t bother Mr. Thompson, whose rallying cry was emblazoned on T-shirts sold to raise money for the Canadian Red Cross’s Alberta flood fund.

“My daughter is in merchandising and we thought we’d sell 500 T-shirts,” said Mr. Thompson. “We were selling 1,000 per hour. The numbers went viral. … I had a call from a CEO who ordered 1,000 and sent them out to his corporate offices around the world – even one in Dubai.”

Does that make Mr. Thompson a master marketer?

“No,” he answered. “I’m just a farmboy with bad English.”

Stampede officials spoke of their lowest moments – seeing the grounds, Stampede Park and Saddledome flooded roughly two weeks before the Stampede parade. What salvaged the situation was the knowledge the Stampede’s electrical substation had been spared and that there was power to run the equipment needed for restoration. A crisis centre was quickly established on the east end of the grounds.

The plan was to push ahead as long as possible.

There was also some discussion as to whether the Stampede should even be held, considering 100,000 people had been evacuated from their homes while some had lost their lives in High River, located just south of Calgary.

“We had to have the Stampede this year,” Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said via e-mail, “not just to build up our economy but to build up our spirit.”

Mr. Thompson believed the Stampede provided “a beacon of light” for those who needed the distraction. “That was coming through as the week went on – the handshakes got firmer, the pats on the back got heavier,” he said. “The most important part of the attendance was seeing that first family going through the gates.”

And the relief efforts continue post-Stampede. On Monday, the Alberta Flood Aid concert set for Aug. 15 at McMahon Stadium was announced featuring such Canadian artists as Ian Tyson, Jann Arden, Tom Cochrane, Randy Bachman, Colin James and The Sheepdogs. Rush is also donating the profits from its July 24 show in Red Deer to flood relief.

The money coming in needs to support a substantial rebuilding here and throughout Southern Alberta, especially on the Siksika First Nation reserve, which was ruined by the overflowing Bow River. As Premier Alison Redford said last week, it was important for Albertans “to connect with neighbours, friends and strangers, and to think why we care about each other and who we are.”

In the end, that’s what the 101st Calgary Stampede was about – connecting with people and watching them care for each other.

“There was a lot of grief in the city. Everyone was in a down mood,” said Keith Marrington, the Stampede’s director of rodeo and chuckwagons. “People wanted to get out of that flood mindset and party and we threw it for them. It was the right thing to do. Everyone we met thanked us for it.”

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