Nobody can curl like the Campbells

Sandy Campbell thought it was a darn-fool game until he played it. His five boys took it up too. Then this curling-crazy family from tiny Avonlea, Sask went out and licked the best in Canada.

ROBERT COLLINS January 7 1956

Nobody can curl like the Campbells

Sandy Campbell thought it was a darn-fool game until he played it. His five boys took it up too. Then this curling-crazy family from tiny Avonlea, Sask went out and licked the best in Canada.

ROBERT COLLINS January 7 1956

Nobody can curl like the Campbells


Sandy Campbell thought it was a darn-fool game until he played it. His five boys took it up too. Then this curling-crazy family from tiny Avonlea, Sask went out and licked the best in Canada.

BY FOUR o’clock on the afternoon of March 23, 1955, the Saskatchewan legislative assembly in Regina was playing to a capacity house. Five hundred spectators—about five times a normal day’s attendance—peered from the public galleries or stood in line beyond the bar of the chamber. Three hundred more waited outside. Flash bul 1)8 blinked. Television cameras whirred. Scarletcoated Mounties stood straight-lmcked at the entrance. i

Unhappily for the MLAs, the crowd wasn’t there to see them. It had come to watch the legislature honor a group of private citizens on its floor for the first time in Saskatchewan history. And, strangely, these were not the usual guests of honor: no state©-

men, war heroes or wealthy industrialists. They were four Saskatchewan farmers who had recently demonstrated that they could heave a forty-twopound granite curling rock down a sheet of ice toward a twelve-inch target better than any other four men in Canada.

The ceremony began with all the pomp and eloquence the legislature could muster. Walter Erb, CCF member for Milestone (the guests’ constituency), announced the arrival of “six distinguished residents of Saskatchewan who have brought great honor to this province.” Tom Johnston, the Speaker, asked permission of the assembly to “bid the distinguished guests to enter.” Premier Tommy Douglas moved proceedings be suspended “in order that the assembly may greet and do honor to its distinguished guests.”

“Mr. Speaker,” said Walter Erb solemnly, “I have the honor to present to you and, through you, to the assembly, Messrs. Lloyd, Glen, Don and Garnet Campbell, brothers, of Avonlea, Saskatchewan, winners of the Macdonald’s Brier Tankard ...” here every eye turned to a tall silver trophy on the clerk’s table “ . . . emblematic of the curling championship of Canada and, indeed, of the world; and their proud parents, Mr. and Mrs. Sandy Campbell.”

“Let the bar of the house be raised that our honored guests may enter and take the seats provided for them,” said Mr. Speaker.

With that the distinguished guests four bashful good-looking brothers and their parents filed in and nervously took seats. Mr. Speaker shook their hands. A small girl gave Mrs. Campbell an armful cf red carnations. Each brother received a fivepiece silver tea service from the province.

The leader of the opposition spoke at length of “the great honor you have brought us.” Premier Douglas spoke at length of their “demonstration of good sportsmanship, clean living and fine upstanding manhood.” Slender, boyish-looking Garnet Campbell politely thanked the province in precisely forty-six words which press-gallery wags said was the longest speech of his life and the shortest ever heard in the legislature. Later eight hundred guests and MLAs thronged into the legislative library to meet the curlers over tea.

To appreciate this remarkable case of mass hero worship one must first understand what the Campbells did for Saskatchewan. They gave the perennial hard-luck province a winner, after fifty years of bad jokes about Saskatchewan weather, roads, dust storms, grasshoppers and runner-up football teams. They did it in jubilee year. They did it at the game Saskatchewan knows best. Curling is to Saskatchewan what baseball is to Brooklyn. The Brier -an interprovincial playoff sponsored by the Macdonald Tobacco Company — might be called the World Series of curling.

It was Saskatchewan’s first Brier win in twentysix tries and the Campbells’ first win in three tries. It came after a series of hair-raising playoff games that brought spectators screaming to their feet and broke all Brier attendance records. And, finally, it was not only the triumph of Saskatchewan over the world; it was the triumph of village over city. To agricultural Saskatchewan, a province of five hundred small towns and villages, the victory couldn’t have been sweeter.

Curling is one of Canada’s favorite participant sports —about a quarter million Canadians play the game, including women and children and almost anyone can afford it. A club membership may cost as little as ten dollars a season, although it usually comes higher in large cities. For equipment you need only a broom, a pair of rubbers and warm qlothing. But, if the rest of Canada sometimes gets enthusiastic about the game, Saskatchewan is plain crazy about it.

The province has 536 clubs with 21,500 members, as compared to Manitoba’s 316 clubs and 15,000 members and Ontario’s 180 clubs and 17,000 members. There are also 3,500 registered women curlers in Saskatchewan, about 7,000 high-school players and about 20,000 who curl occasionally.

The game is a top favorite in this small-town province because curling is part of a small town’s social life. The curling rink is where everyone goes nearly every night, not merely to curl but to criticize his neighbor’s curling, swap gossip, sip coffee and flirt with the girls.

Such is the case in Avonlea, a village of three hundred and fifteen people in the sparse scrub timber and level wheatland fifty miles southwest of Regina; a village of neat frame houses sprinkled with TV aerials, a two-block business section facing the stucco CNR station, and streets that are by turns muddy, rough and dusty. The most imposing building in town is the twinkling roll-top aluminumsheathed curling rink that catches the eye from miles away. Here sixteen four-man teams play a regular winter schedule, many more villagers participate in bonspiels or casual matches and the rest of the town comes to watch. Local motorists have adopted the license-plate slogan: “Avonlea— The Home Of Better Curlers.”

But even in curling-happy Avonlea the Campbells are unique. Besides the four Brier winners a fifth brother, Gordon, curls. So do two married sisters, Margaret and Verna (who no longer live in Avonlea). Mrs. Campbell attends all her sons’ important games. The father, A. N. "Sandy” Campbell, curls too; in fact, he started it all.

When Sandy Campbell went west from Buckingham, Que., around the turn of the century he’d never touched a curling rock. After working on a CPR road gang he went farming fifty miles southwest of Regina in 1906. The nearest town was Rouleau, fourteen miles north. Sometimes he went there to play hockey or scoff at the curlers.

"Bunch of old men tossing rocks and hollering their heads off,” Campbell remembers. “I thought they were half crazy.”

Then Avonlea went up along the railroad, two and a half miles from Sandy’s homestead, and in 1924 curling came to Avonlea. Campbell tried it and was soon tossing Continued on page 36

Continued on page 36

Nobody can curl like the Campbells


rocks and hollering his head off.

“Once I got started I couldn’t stay away from the rink,” he confesses. He spent hours on the ice every winter. He was there the night Garnet was born twenty-nine years ago.

“Sandy brought the doctor out to the farm,” says Bill Armstrong, Avonlea’s druggist and mayor. “Then he went back to finish his game!”

As the family grew, Campbell nurtured a daydream.

“It would be kind of nice if we could curl as a family someday,” he thought.

He taught the game to Lloyd, now a pleasant mild-mannered man of forty, and Glen, a thirty-eight-year-old RCAF veteran and the least taciturn of the brothers. In time Donald, Gordon and Garnet took it up. They were natural athletes and they took to curling immediately. If the ice was smooth they tossed two battered rocks on a pond near the farm. If it wasn’t, they trudged or drove to Avonlea.

“They’d curl on the coldest days, even if no one else turned up at the rink,” says Mrs. Dick Bird of Regina, who grew up in Avonlea. “Some people thought they were foolish to spend so much time on a game.”

How old should a skip be?

Not until after World War II did Campbell’s family-rink idea materialize. By then Garnet, who started curling in high school around 1941, was showing signs of becoming the finest curler in town. In 1947 Sandy, Lloyd, Glen and Garnet set their sights on a provincial title. They won the Avonlea championship, defeated their sub-district opponents, Hearne and Briercrest; won the southern Saskatchewan title and, finally, took the Saskatchewan championship from Saskatoon, the pick of the north.

Then Sandy, his wife and the boys headed for the Brier playoffs in Saint John, N.B. Southern Saskatchewan was floundering in ten-foot snowdrifts that winter and side roads and branch railway lines were blocked. The Campbells set out for Moose Jaw by car, through fields, around snowdrifts. They shoveled and pushed their way to the highway with the aid of a farmer and team of horses and caught a train.

At Saint John, veteran curlers stared with mingled scorn and disbelief when twenty-year-old Garnet stepped out to skip the Saskatchewan team. A curling team consists of lead, second, third and skip. The skip is top man. Like the baseball pitcher, he gets the glory when the team wins and the blame when it loses. He shoots last, so often his rocks decide the game. He must be able to “read ice”—determine the ice’s smoothness which will govern the speed or “weight” necessary for each rock, and detect slight imperfections in the surface that could cause a rock to veer an inch to left or right. While his teammates make their shots the skip stands at the target end of the rink directing them. And here, at the Brier, was a shy skinny Saskatchewan youth telling his father and older brothers how to curl.

But the Campbells saw nothing remarkable in this. They considered Garnet the best curler in the family so gave him the key job. He sometimes discusses difficult shots with them but his decision is final and undisputed.

“Garnet has a touch for curling that the rest of us don’t have,” explains Glen.

“He’s the best ice-reader I’ve seen,” says Ivie “Scotty” Richardson, secretary-treasurer of the Saskatchewan Curling Association. “I’d say Garnet is the best curler in Canada.”

Garnet was not yet at his peak in 1947 and the Campbells placed third in the Brier.

“That boy’ll be a good curler in maybe fifteen years,” said a Saint John spectator, within earshot of Mrs. Campbell.

But it didn’t take fifteen years. During the next seven seasons Saskatchewan saw plenty of the Campbells. They played all over the province and practiced religiously. (Garnet still tries to practice at least one hour every winter day.)

All the brothers concentrated on sweeping—they insist it helps to control the speed and direction of a rock by creating a slight vacuum in front of the moving stone and by making the ice slipperier. But sweeping became too tough for Sandy, who is seventy-one, and he dropped out of the rink. However, Gordon, who is now thirty, came home from university with a degree in agricultural engineering, and Don, who is thirty-three and an ex-Mountie, returned to the farm. Lloyd, Glen and Don are married now and live on farms around Pense, thirty miles north of Avonlea. Garnet and Gordon live and farm at home. But the brothers pool their farm labor in the summer and their curling talent in the winter.

Their curling began to pay off handsomely. At home in Avonlea they play on separate rinks to give lesser teams a fair chance, but in bonspiels they curl together. And when the Campbells are together it’s hard to beat them out of first prize, which in curling is apt to be quite attractive.

In most bonspiels all the rinks pay an entry fee, part of which is used to pay for prizes—anything from a tea service or coffee table to an automobile. In addition merchants also present trophies and prizes to winning rinks. Thus, in one year, the Campbells won eight automobiles. They sold seven to buy land and donated the eighth car to the Avonlea curling club. The club raffled it off for more than eight thousand dollars, which helped finance the new curling rink. When it came time to build the rink with volunteer labor, the Campbells helped with that too.

Prairie “carspiels” are now dying out but bonspiels still offer other valuable prizes. The Campbells have won twenty-eight medals, twenty-two trophies, six hundred dollars worth of savings bonds, sixteen car blankets, sixteen silver trays, twelve wrist watches, twelve sets of luggage, twelve radios, eight cedar chests, four sets of silverware, four diamond rings, and assorted rocking chairs, sweaters, hats, sports jackets, parkas, desk sets, end tables, bedspreads, mirrors, steam irons, floor polishers, electric mixers, gas stoves and vacuum cleaners. Last November the Campbell rink took home golf clubs and more trophies for winning the Grey Cup bonspiel in Vancouver. The Campbell wives never know when to expect another household appliance—or another tray to polish.

“I can’t keep up with my silver polishing,” says Grace Campbell, Don’s wife.

The brothers themselves are only mildly concerned with prizes. The game comes first with them.

“If you set your heart on a bonspiel prize you probably won’t win it,” reasons Glen, while Garnet says casu* ally of the diamond ring he won, “I guess it’s lying around the house someplace.”

But if the Campbells have won a lot in curling, their victories and the

way they play have helped the game’s popularity too. Whenever the brothers are on the ice a crowd usually gathers, although they are not hearty mixers. Between games in a bonspiel they like to rest in their hotel rooms. They don’t drink or smoke and they sidestep most bonspiel parties.

“They’re good healthy boys,” says their mother. “I wouldn’t live with them if they drank or smoked.”

In 1950 the Campbells won another southern Saskatchewan playoff but not until 1954 did they take their second provincial title. That year Don, Glen, Gordon and Garnet played the Glenn Richardson rink of Saskatoon. It was a best-of-three series. Each rink won one game. The third game went into the twelfth end, tied 9-9. Richardson came up for the last shot of the match. Garnet Campbell had just tossed “shot rock”—the rock that was, at that moment, nearest the centre. To win, Richardson had to avoid several guard rocks, nudge Campbell’s shot aside and leave his own in a better position. He came so close that the umpire had to measure. The Campbells won the game and the championship by less than an inch. At the Brier, in Edmonton, they lost two games, ending in second place.

Harvesting was late the following autumn and Avonlea had no natural ice until January. But the Campbells squeezed in a few practice games by traveling fifty miles to Regina on Sunday nights. They needed the practice because playoffs began late in January and, as usual, the competition in Saskatchewan was tough. They edged out a southern Saskatchewan win. Again they faced Richardson ofSaskatoon in the provincial final and again they fought to the final rock. On the twelfth end with a perfect shot, Garnet rapped two of Richardson’s rocks to the back of the target circles to give the Campbells victory.

A plow for an escort

On the week end of March 5-6, Regina was suddenly a rip-roaring Brier town. Eleven provincial champions arrived—Ontario sends two each year. Bagpipers met them at the station. A cavalcade of automobiles conducted them to the Hotel Saskatchewan. The city rocked with parties, banquets and speeches. Regina’s arena sparkled with five sheets of milk-white ice spotted with red, white and blue circles and red and blue rocks. The walls were hung with red, white and green Saskatchewan jubilee bunting.

On Sunday night snow blocked southern Saskatchewan’s side roads. The Avonlea town fathers called for snowplows and the department of highways cleared a trail to the highway Monday for a contingent of Avonlea automobiles. The five hundred Avonlea and district people who couldn’t go sent a mammoth good-luck telegram to the Campbells. At three p.m., in the first round of the Brier, the Campbells faced Newfoundland—and won easily.

That evening they whipped Prince Edward Island and the next day they swept past Quebec and New Brunswick. But other rinks, including Manitoba, winner of fourteen Briers, were undefeated too. Outside of making most of the proper shots, the Campbells hadn’t done much to attract attention to themselves. They offered no pungent remarks for the press. They offered almost no remarks. Radio commentators got around this difficulty by tape-recording interviews with the brothers, then chopping out the embarrassing silences.

It wasn’t that the Campbells were antisocial, nor that they were bashful. It’s merely that they take their curling

seriously. As Glen explained recently: “You need rest during a bonspiel, particularly a Brier. You can’t be always answering phone calls or answering questions or shaking hands with all the people you’d like to meet. We tried to spend as much time as possible resting quietly in the hotel.”

On Wednesday afternoon Saskatchewan trounced Alberta, but that night British Columbia gave them their stiffest contest of the Brier. The west coast team led until the tenth end, when Saskatchewan tied it, 8-8. In the eleventh Garnet won another point by a fraction of an inch. With a 9-8 lead in the twelfth, the Campbells methodically laid a rock inside the house and built a ring of guard rocks around it. The British Columbia skip, Reg Stone, had last rock. He slipped a neat shot through the guard. It was only a few inches short of nudging Campbell’s rock and tying the game. As it was, Saskatchewan won, 10-8.

In this, as in other tight games, the Campbells showed no sign of emotion.

“I’ve watched them often through field glasses,” says John Wilson, a CBC producer in Regina. “They never changed expression, no matter how well or how badly the game was going.”

Although they didn’t show it, the Campbells were tired Wednesday night. It was almost eleven o’clock when the B. C. game ended. Three games were scheduled for Thursday, including one with unbeaten Manitoba. To ensure a full night’s rest, Garnet Campbell took a sleeping pill.

The next morning as the brothers drove to the arena Garnet complained, “My head feels funny. That pill hasn’t worn off.”

They took the ice against Nova Scotia at 9.30. But as Garnet went into his first high backswing he suddenly dropped to one knee, too dizzy to continue.

“We knew the sleeping pill was still bothering him,” Glen recalls.

The Campbells held a hasty conference. They could call up Gordon as a substitute but they realized that none of them could skip a game like Garnet.

“We can afford to lose one,” Lloyd said.

“No, we can’t,” argued Glen. “If we lose this, and Manitoba wins all theirs, you know what happens—we have to beat Manitoba tonight to end the Brier in a tie.”

Meanwhile, spectators and curlers clustered around.

“Give him coffee,” said one.

“Give him a Bromo,” said another. Garnet dislikes coffee but he gulped a steaming cup and went on with the game. He did not run down ice for his shots and he paused in the hack longer than usual before firing each rock. But he led the rink to a 19-8 win over Nova Scotia and, in the afternoon, to a 15-7 win over Ontario. By evening he was clear-headed for the game against Manitoba which was, by then, the only other undefeated rink.

Meanwhile word flashed through Saskatchewan: the Campbells were still

winning. Avonlea had declared Thursday a civic holiday. The schools closed, too. About eighty percent of the village population motored to Regina to cheer the Campbells on.

That night 5,521 fans filled every seat and overflowed on to the stairs. More than a thousand others waited outside in snowflurries and near-zero weather, on the off-chance of buying or begging a seat. Earlier in the week they could have bought a Brier season ticket for five dollars. Now one man offered fifteen dollars a seat for this game—but couldn’t buy one.

The pride of Saskatchewan stepped on the ice with impassive faces and

Campbell tartan shirts. Four other games were in progress but were virtually ignored. Manitoba took a one-point lead. Saskatchewan tied it. Saskatchewan took a one-point lead. Manitoba tied it. The score teetered back and forth with never more than three points between the teams. Twice the shot rock had to be measured. The skips deliberated long and carefully over each shot.

Going into the twelfth end the Campbells led, 7-6. Manitoba’s skip, Roy Forsyth, called for a guard rock in front of the house, hoping to slip a shot rock behind it. His lead, Donald Reid, expertly laid the guard rock down. Garnet Campbell wordlessly pointed his broom at the Manitoba rock. Lloyd Campbell calmly rapped it out.

It was a steady take-out game from then on until Don Campbell, playing third, took his second shot and removed a Manitoba guard. His own rock did not slide on into the house; instead it remained in front, in effect serving as the guard Roy Forsyth wanted.

First a whisper, then a roar

The arena was hushed now. The game had been on almost three hours. The other matches were over and those players, too, were watching this battle of champions.

Forsyth drew a shot into the fourfoot circle behind Don Campbell’s rock. Garnet Campbell let go an identical shot, removing Forsyth’s rock and leaving his own.

“Oooh!” breathed the crowd.

Forsyth coolly fired an even better draw shot that stopped with a bite on the twelve-inch button.

The crowd roared again, then held its breath.

Once more it was down to the last shot—Garnet Campbell’s shot. If he failed, Forsyth’s rock would tie the score and force an extra end. it was not an easy shot. He must dodge his own first rock, move Forsyth’s and stay in scoring position.

His rock whispered down the ice. It curled in with perfect weight and accuracy, tapped Forsyth’s shot away and stayed on the button. Reside it, Lloyd and Don calmly raised their brooms to indicate shot rock. Saskatchewan had won, 8-6. Cheering spectators stormed over the boards to thump Garnet’s back. Out of his t wenty-four shots in that game, twentytwo had been perfect.

The Brier wasn’t over yet. The Campbells needed the final win against northern Ontario in the morning to stay ahead of Manitoba. But they took a 3-0 lead in the first end and were never in trouble. When it ended, Sandy Campbell sprang to the ice and embraced his sons.

That afternoon the Regina Army Signals Pipe Rand led all the curlers into the arena for the Brier Tankard presentation, to the tune of The Campbells Are Cornin’.

In Ottawa' Saskatchewan MPs thumped their desks with delight when agriculture minister James G. Gardiner announced the Brier result.

And in Avonlea, a night later, there was a reception in the curling rink. The Brier Tankard was there and so were most of the three hundred and fifteen townspeople. There were speeches, more handshakes, a parade led by the local RCMP constable, and a piper playing, naturally, The Campbells Are Coinin’. As the Avonlea-Rouleau Beacon noted later, “A thoroughly enjoyable evening was had by everyone.”

For, after all, hadn’t everyone known that this darn-fool curling would pay off someday for the Campbells? if