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Going once, going twice: Calgary Stampede canvas auction returns after pandemic delay

CALGARY — The return of the Calgary Stampede's canvas auction Tuesday night mirrored much of the economic uncertainty coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Chuckwagon driver Kurt Bensmiller salutes the crowd after being sold for $185,000 at the Calgary Stampede chuckwagon canvas auction Calgary, Tuesday, April 12, 2022. Bids at the auction have typically been a barometer of Alberta's economy. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

CALGARY — The return of the Calgary Stampede's canvas auction Tuesday night mirrored much of the economic uncertainty coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The event is typically considered a bellwether for Alberta's oil and gas industry, as many sponsors that pay to have their company names on chuckwagons competing in thefestival's rodeoare energy industry players.

Of the 27 rigs set to take part this year, the top fetched $185,000 while the lowest was $35,000.

At the last canvas auction in 2019, 36 wagons raised nearly $3.3 million.

This year, the total was $2.1 million.

"It's very difficult to, say, compare a 2019 or before with a 2022 auction," said Steve McDonough, president and chairman of the Stampede.

"It's apples and oranges. We have fewer wagons, things have changed and we're coming out of a pandemic, hopefully. I would caution that we're not here to break any records."

There was a lot of anticipation about this year's auction. At the start of the pandemic in 2020, the Stampede was cancelled for the first time in 100 years. It returned last year, but without chuckwagon racing.

"It was disappointing not to be here," driver Kurt Bensmiller said of the scaled-down 2021 Stampede. His team attracted the highest canvas bid this year.

"I'm pretty excited. I wasn't sure what to expect after two years off. I'm kind of speechless. That's the highest I've sold. So, after two years off, we want to be here in Calgary."

Bensmiller said chuckwagon racing is an expensive sport and the money goes toward offsetting the costs of competing.

"I'm not sure what the average was, but I mean nobody's ever happy. Everybody always wants more money. It doesn't matter who you are — top seller or bottom seller. But I'm hoping everyone walks way with a little encouragement."

Kent Stormoen, owner of Versatile Energy Services Ltd., bought the canvas for Bensmiller's team for the fourth time.

"The last two years have been really, really tough in the oil industry," Stormoen said.

He added there's been a bit of a turnaround, as oil prices have skyrocketed in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

"If we can support the Calgary Stampede and the chucks, we're all about that," he said.

Stormoen said he was a little surprised at the disparity between the top bids for Bensmiller and Vern Nolin, who received $180,000, and those on the lower end.

"Kurt and Vern are probably the two top drivers here. And there's some really good drivers that sold after them that I think deserved a little more recognition than they did."

Nolin said he's hopeful things will get back to normal on the chuckwagon circuit, and he's glad to be back. But he said he worries it won't be as easy for some of the teams that received low bids.

"It's nice. I know $180,000 sounds like a lot of money. But we carry along with us a lot of costs, and the cost of everything has gone up and feed is super high this year," he said.

"You gotta look down at some of the other bids and there ain't much left there. So I guess you could say Kurt and I were lucky enough and we'll put it to good use."

The Stampede runs from July 8 to 17.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 12, 2022.

Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press