Canada’s world champions of curling
Seven years ago the Richardsons of Regina—two brothers and two cousins— caught the curling fever that is sweeping Canada. Ernie Richardson once called curling a sport “for old men or muskrats.” Now, he’s skip of the rink that has won the world title twice in a row
ONE NIGHT IN MID-MARCH 1959, a Harry Lauder sort of Scot named Willie Young, captain of Scotland's champion curling team, sat hunched before a roaring fire in his farmhouse near Ayr. His florid face was grimly set and his glass of whisky was untouched.
His wife, busy with the supper dishes, became concerned for her normally cheerful and thirsty spouse. "Willie," she asked, “What’s come over you? You're awful quiet tonight.” Willie stirred and sighed dejectedly. “Mrs. Young,” he slowly replied, “1 just don’t know how I'm going to beat those fellows.”
“Those fellows” were the Richardsons of Regina, Canada's curling champions and the first to play for the Scotch Cup and the world title in Scotland. Ernie, now 29. his brother Garnet. 27, and their cousin Arnold, 32, were carpenters in Regina; Wesley, 30, another cousin, was an instrument man at a Regina oil refinery. That day they had beaten Willie Young
and his middle-aged team rather handily in the first of five games for the curling crown.
"Are they good?” asked Mrs. Young.
“Good?” snorted Willie. “They’re too damn good!”
Mrs. Young told the Richardsons of Willie’s dilemma shortly before they took him on in the second game. And Willie, who had lost only two of eighty games that season, never did find out how to beat the Richardsons. He lost the next four games as well. Said he. eyeing his aging crew: "Scotland will need younger players if we’re to beat those fellows.”
But Hughie Neilson. whose I960 Scottish champions were all in their thirties, wasn't able to beat those fellows either. L.ike Willie Young, Neilson too lost five games to the Richardsons, and watched with chagrin as the upstarts from Canada again won the treasured cup and the curling title.
it was only the second year of the inter-
national contest and the cup was on its way back to Regina — bearing only the names of Ernie, Garnet, Arnold and Wesley Richardson. And wasn't curling a Scottish game? There was the rub. But Willie Young and Hughie Neilson had no need to feel alone with the problem of how to beat the Richardsons. The champions of nine Canadian provinces were wondering the same thing.
Just seven years ago the Richardsons, starting to curl for the fun of it, were bungling a game that Ernie as a youth had dismissed as a sport “for old men or muskrats” because it bored him.
Today, he and his teammates can’t get it out of their system. They mastered the game by spending hundreds of hours at it, almost entirely for the sake of what looks to a non-curler like the somewhat dubious pleasure of playing the game. Their only loot from curling is a jumble of prizes — CONTINUED ON RAGE 60
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Canada’s world champions of curling
The game’s simple enough; it’s the jargon that’s the difficult thing to understand about curSing
watches and household goods and gadgets. When they brought the Canadian and world curling championships home to Saskatchewan they were greeted at the airport by relatives, a few politicians and a victory arch of curling brooms held by women curlers. Only a few hundred Reginans took the time to watch them drive through the city with a mounted RCMP escort.
The hoopla that usually follows sport champions was missing because curling, one of the few truly amateur games we have left, is not a spectator sport. Football fans, some forever mystified by its rules and manœuvres, will sit for hours in the rain watching grown boys bashing each other about for pay. Curling spectators arc usually curlers themselves. Noncurlers can’l get excited over men in color-splashed sweaters and caps with pompons sliding a heavy stone down a strip of ice while teammates dance ahead in an awkward, slithering two-step, polishing the stone's path toward a circular target with furious sweeps of a broom.
1 hey don't understand it, though the most difficult thing to understand about curling is its jargon; the game is simple enough. The idea is to get the stone, or rock, inside a target that looks like an RCAF insignia painted on the ice at both ends of a narrow rink. The team with a rock closer to the centre, or button, scores points for the rocks it has within the circle. Then the teams turn around and play the other way; twelve rounds, or ends, make up a game. During an end, each player throws two rocks alternately with the opposing players; the team cap-
tains, or skips, plan strategy and instruct their players where to aim and how much force, or weight, to use on a throw.
Curling is a sports phenomenon in the west, and the Richardsons are only four among thousands of Canadians who have been bittenby the curling bug in the past few years. Prairie youngsters learn to curl with weighted jam tins at community centres; their fathers and mothers curl in Canadian Legion or service-club leagues, or with fellow workers in industry and business. In small towns, the local curling rink is the centre of social life, and farmers, at loose ends after harvest, do little else in winter but curl.
A boon to empty clubhouses
Saskatchewan, home of more curlers per capita than any other province, has some 600 curling clubs, 37,000 men anti boys and 10,000 women and girls who curl. The season is no longer limited by freeze-up and thaw; most clubs in Canada have installed or plan to install artificial ice, and the game goes on from early October to the beginning of April.
In eastern Canada, curling has been a common if not a widespread sport for decades. But it wasn’t till it had become a craze in the west that the fad started to spread eastward. Now, in many eastern cities, crimp-roofed curling rinks are rising — some of them displaying touches of the most imaginative architecture in Canada. Many of them are going up behind the clubhouses of golf courses, part of the clubs’ plans to make year-round athletes of summer golfers and keep the
nineteenth hole open throughout the year.
Curling is no longer a sport for men only; high-school youths now have their national champions, and so do women, who compete as much on the ice for the title of best-dressed curler as they do for the title of best curler.
While its popularity rises in Canada, curling is almost extinct in its native Scotland. The Richardsons found that only rich or leisurely Scots curl today, and the country has fewer than three hundred teams — about the total of three goodsized clubs in Canada.
And the Scots found that the Richardsons' game wasn't the game they’d exported to Canada. Scots play the basic "draw” game: they aim at (or draw to) a scoring position and they have a gentlemanly distaste for knocking an opponent’s rock off the target.
They’re able to switch styles
The Richardsons introduced to Scotland a style developed in Saskatchewan, where curlers aim at an enemy rock in the hope that their rock will knock it out of play and leave their own in a scoring position. It's a style that can easily be beaten if it’s played erratically. But Manitoba curlers, who have won fifteen national titles, now play the Saskatchewan style, as does most of the west, where curlers are confident that eastern teams, which haven't won a national title since 1951. will have to adopt the style if the east hopes to win again.
The Saskatchewan game beat the Scots, who lost even more convincingly when they tried to copy it in one match. The Richardsons countered by playing the Scots' conservative style, and won that game as well. This ability to curl equally well in draw or knockout style has made the Richardsons Canada's champions tw'o years in a row. Theirs is only the third rink to accomplish the feat in thirty-one years of competition for the Macdonald Brier Tankard, which stands for the Canadian championship.
"And if they get out of Saskatchewan, they’ll win it again next year." says Winnipeg's Ken Watson, three times a national champion himself and Mr. Curling to the sports world. "Their skip. Ernie, isn't thinking in terms of today's glory. He’s reduced the game to a simple mathematical formula, and he's thinking years ahead."
In Saskatchewan, which has produced only one other Dominion champion team (Garnet Campbell's family rink from Avonlea in 1955), the world champions are touted by some newspapers as "the remarkable Richardsons of Regina.”
This doesn't go down so well at Stoughton. a south Saskatchewan farming community that only this year got sewers and town status for its 580-odd residents. Most Rcginans had never heard of the place until Mrs. Lyle Arthur, correspondent for the Regina Leader - Post, objected to Regina's claim on the Richardsons. They didn't belong to Regina, she wrote, but to Stoughton, where they were born. "1 couldn’t let them get away with that,” she said recently.
It was near Stoughton that the Richardsons’ paternal grandfather, Samuel Richardson. settled w'ith his wife and five children shortly before World War I. The curling Richardsons all grew up in and around Stoughton, where townspeople remember Ernie Richardson as a tall, gangling youth who, at 13, took a crack at curling in a high-school bonspiel because a team had to be filled out. He hogged threw short of the target — all his locks that day. He preferred to shoot snooker in the local poolroom. At 17 he signed up for five years wdth the RCAF,
but after a year bought his way out with a loan from his father. "There were too many bosses.” he explains wdth a shrug. "You get so you can't think for yourself.” A six-foot-four 200-pounder. Ernie has straight black hair and a casual but commanding manner. He has two children. Donald, six. and Judy. four.
His brother Garnet, who throws second ori fhe team, quit school in Regina in Grade I I against his parents’ w ishes and. like Ernie, went to work for his father, a housebuilder. At work, the brothers refuse to be separated. Garnet, five foot
eleven and 170 pounds, has his brothers dark good looks and is nicknamed Sam after his grandfather. He has a daughter, Brenda Lee. three.
Arnold, the third curling Richardson, quit school after Grade 8 to help his father — Ernie and Garnet's uncle —train and race harness horses, a sport he pursued until 1951. Today, while Ernie. Garnet and their cousin Wes golf (in the low 90s) between curling seasons. Arnold fishes, boats and water-skis on Long Lake near Regina.
Smallest of the four Richardsons (he's
five toot eight and weighs 155 pounds), Arnold is also, at 32, the eldest. He’s called "the kid" because of his size and youthful appearance. His two boys and two girls are the reason his mother has never seen her son play at the Brier; she’s stayed with the children each year so his wife could make the trip.
Wes, the rink's lead, is the only one of the Richardsons who was athletically inclined before the curling bug bit them. At Stoughton, he was a hockey hopeful, but his real love was baseball, and he used to recruit Garnet as catcher for
They don’t worry about the Brier and Scotch Cup games; the toughest competition is in Saskatchewan
pitching practice behind the barn. For four years he was a top right-hander for the Regina Red Sox in the city’s senior ball league. A six-foot-three 190-pounder, Wes has an easy, engaging grin, but he’s more serious than his teammates.
Of their Scottish trips, the Richardsons are inclined to recall the Scots’ “overwhelming hospitality.” Says Garnet: “I don’t know how a non - th inking team would make out over there.” The prairie curlers’ ability to meet their genial opponents dram for dram helped soften the blows they dealt the Scots on the ice.
It was a heartening sight to the Scotch Whisky Association, which sponsors the Scotch Cup games. At first, the whisky barons were skeptical about the Canadians. On the day of the first game, they invited the Richardsons to a directors’ banquet, the first outsiders they’d admitted to their hallowed hall. The Richardsons promptly startled their hosts and the waiters by drinking milk. ("There was that game to play,” Arnold explains.)
The Macdonald Tobacco people, who give the Brier Tankard, and provide scoreboards for curling sheets, across Canada, haven't fared so well with the Richardsons. None will touch a cigarette, though Arnold and Ernie smoke the odd cigar.
But drinking and curling are synonymous, according to Ken Watson, who organizes the Scotch Cup trip for the publicrelations firm that acts for the Scotch Whisky Association. And curling, once a quiet and gentle sport, is fair game for the PR men from distilleries and breweries, airlines, pipelines and railways, and their strange assortment of bedfellows. They descend like locusts on the bonspiels. their suitcases bulging with booze, their hotel doors wide open for thirsty company.
It’s a matter of painful memory that many a good rink has lost a crucial Brier game or two in a hotel snake-room. Garnet Campbell and his quiet brothers made Brier history of a sort in 1955 when they stuck to milk while liquor flowed freely on all sides and the usual party atmosphere prevailed.
The Richardsons, who like a couple of bottles of beer after a game, attended the nightly Brier functions — but they held their thirst in check. At the 1960 Brier in Fort William, Garnet, holding a full glass at a reception, was stopped by Ken Watson. “You’ve got five straight wins,” said Watson. “But is it any time to start drinking?” Garnet offered Watson a sniff; it was ginger ale. Says Garnet: “I figured the other teams would see us drinking and think ’if the Richardsons arc knocking it back we might as well go to it as well.’ ”
The Richardsons were favorites to win the 1960 Brier — a position they couldn’t have hoped to reach only a few years before. Three of them, Ernie, Garnet and Arnold, began curling in 1953 with Norman Richardson, elder brother of Wes and a top curler at Regina’s landlocked HMCS Queen, as skip. Norman skipped the rink for a year, though he winced at times as his green teammates slithered on the ice and their rocks sailed through the house — the target — and out of play.
“It was pretty funny,” Garnet recalls. “We were sloppy. In the long run I guess we made it more by determination than ability.”
The Richardsons curled only eighteen games that year and lost half of them. When Norman was posted the next year to Victoria (he skipped the Navy’s cham-
pionship rink in 1960), Wes Scott, a Regina carpenter, joined the team as lead and Ernie took over as skip. Scott played two years with the team and his place was taken by Trevor Fisher, a Regina plumber. Wes Richardson didn’t join the rink until 1958. "I got in on the gravy train,” he says.
That year they played forty-six games and lost only three on their way to a world championship — two to Regina’s Bill Clark in the south Saskatchewan playoffs and one to Manitoba’s Dr. Dick Bird in the Brier at Quebec City.
In I960, the Scots hoped to beat the Canadians with Hughie Neilson, whose expert draw game, they were sure, would solve the Richardsons’ knockout style. And in the first game at Ayr, Neilson gave them a run for their money.
Even a critic was impressed
The second game was played in Edinburgh, and the Richardsons began to aggravate a dour little Scot in the stands. Each time a Richardson rock banged a Neilson rock off the target, he growled: “That’s nay curling.”
On the fourth end, Neilson had two rocks on the target and one counted; four rocks sat in front of the target with only narrow openings, or ports, between them. Ernie skimmed his first rock through to the edge of the button and the complaining Scot fell silent.
When Ernie put his next rock through the narrow port and flush on the button, the Scot roared: “That is curling!”
Neilson’s team didn’t recover.
The Richardsons don’t worry much about the Brier and Scotch Cup games; their toughest competitors are back home.
“When you’re clear of Saskatchewan, the tension’s off,” says Ernie. "Then you can really relax and enjoy yourself.”
Playing against George Fink (curling teams are known by the name of the skip) in the 1960 south Saskatchewan playoffs, the Richardsons won the first game 7-6, lost the second 8-7, and won the third 6-5. They won each of their games with the last rock on the last end. “The toughest games of all.” says Ernie.
The province’s top curlers now get Brier-like competition right through the season. They play Sunday nights in the Exhibition Curling League in Regina’s Curlodrome, Canada’s first rent-for-play rink. Curlers pay $2.50 to enter a contest and can win an $80 top prize. Ernie Richardson is a league executive.
All-star curlers include the Finks — Tony and his sons George, Jim and Eddie — some of whom curl as many as 250 games a season, probably more than any other rink in Canada. ("Fantastic,” says Ken Watson.) Top eastern rinks curl no more than 80 to 100 games a year.
The Richardsons, who at first curled only 40 games a year, play 150 games a season (including two a week at their home club). They’ve won 85 percent of them.
“Sometimes,” says Ernie, “You’d like a couple of days off. You often have to curl when you don’t want to, and play teams you can beat nine times out of ten.” But, he figures, “it’s a game you can’t get perfect at. You get out there with all the confidence in the world — then wonder what happened when you lose.”
There are no practice throws in curling; the ice sheet’s quirks, its ups and downs, must be solved on the first end. The hacks, a depression in the ice in which a foot is placed to boost a throw, are often different too; they might be too high or off kilter, kinks that could spoil a delivery.
On the ice, the Richardsons talk very
little; they breeze through their games in two and a half hours or less. Eastern teams, they say, talk too much; their games last as long as four hours. Says Garnet: "The game’s slow enough without wasting a lot of time talking out there.”
Some skips use signals to call for the amount of weight they want on a teammate’s throw. The Richardsons tried signals only once. "We got so mixed up we didn’t know what was going on,” says Arnold.
On the road to bonspiels and playoffs, they travel in the same car, and always sleep and eat well. Brier tension has bothered them little, on the ice or between games.
“You can spot tension in other rinks,” says Ernie. “It knocks their calibre of play and a lot of good rinks falter because of it.”
“We’re more nervous when we have to make speeches at banquets,” Garnet says. "Two years ago Ernie couldn't make a speech if he was forced to—now he's pretty good at it.”
The time is a sore point
Garnet, the rink’s morale booster, is full of confidence. In 1959, he brought his daughter a small Scots doll from Scotland, promised her a larger one the next year and made it good. "And next year it’ll be an even bigger one,” he predicts. His confidence has sometimes irked his brother. After winning their first game at the 1959 Brier, he told Ernie: "We're going to win it all.”
“Don’t be silly,” said Ernie. “Saskatchewan has won only one Brier in thirty-one years.” But his mother recalls that when they headed for the Brier that year Ernie told her: “I’m going to win that Brier some day, mother, if it takes me fifty years.”
Their rise to the top of the curling world hasn't taken the shine off the game for the Richardsons; this season it will take about seven weeks of their time and a few hundred dollars in traveling expenses.
It’s the time involved that sometimes becomes a sore point with their curling widows. “I suppose you can call us that,” says Garnet’s wife Kay. "It was getting a bit too much for awhile. But since we've been going to the Briers it's been worth while. Quebec was a wonderful trip.”
Kay doesn’t curl; nor does Arnold’s wife Shirley. Ernie’s wife, Marcia, has curled for some time and Wes’s wife, Pat, threw her first rock a few weeks ago. If they can get babysitters, they watch their husbands curl during the season, and they all attended the last two Briers. They hope to make their first trip to Scotland in 1961.
That depends on Ernie, Garnet, Arnold and Wes. Their fans, they’ve noticed, are beginning to fall off; Saskatchewan is looking again for an underdog. Many people, though, hope the Richardsons will be the first to win the Canadian championship three years in a row.
And if next year’s Scottish champions and the champions of the other provinces are expecting to beat the Richardsons, they should know what’s going on in Regina.
When Saskatchewan’s curling season was only two weeks old, the Richardsons were already in championship form. They got the first eight-ender — a round in which they scored all eight rocks — of their curling career. -Jç