When the last rock was swept into the house and the brooms were put away last week in Brandon, Man., Al Hackner’s rink had become the 53rd Canadian Brier champion. This week the Thunder Bay, Ont., foursome heads to the German Alps town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen for the Air Canada Silver Broom world championships, while across the mountains in Geneva Colleen Jones and her Nova Scotia rink go for the women’s world championship. The Jones and Hackner rinks are the pinnacle of a sport that Canadians have embraced since 1760.
The national devotion to the ancient game (Flemish art depicting curling is dated as early as 1511) outstrips that for any other imported pastime, but the ardor is difficult to measure with precision. AÍ Hackner says, “I’ve seen statistics showing that 20 per cent of Canadians and 30 per cent of the people in Thunder Bay curl.” Doug Maxwell, the executive director of the Silver Broom, is a little more conservative. “The problem in getting an accurate figure, I think, dates back to the dirty ’30s. Clubs pay fees for each member registered with the Canadian Curling Association [CCA]. Back then, like now, a buck was a buck, so clubs would only register members who would be involved in provincial playdowns or big spiels. They’re still doing it.” There are 140,000 men and 75,000 women registered, but Maxwell, taking into account the number of clubs, sheets of ice and equipment sales across the country, surmises that the ratio of curlers with a reticent approach to fees and registered curlers “is about six to one. So we think there are between one million and 1.5 million Canadians curling regularly.”
There is no question, however, that when the elite rinks contest the Labatt’s Tankard at the Brier or the world’s best play for the Silver Broom, Canadians settle in front of their TVs. According to the CBC, curling ranks second only to figure skating in attracting viewers of amateur sports. The 1981 Brier broadcast attracted an impressive 25 per cent audience share (554,000).
The game has attracted men and women to pass wintry afternoons and evenings ever since the 78th Highlanders regiment melted down cannon balls to fashion stones for games on the St. Charles River near Quebec City a year after the death of General Wolfe. The
use of “iron” stones was only the first of many changes Canadians have made in the Scottish game. Traditionally, curling stones had been just that, stones weighing anywhere from two to 45 kg. They were called channel stones and came from riverbeds where the rushing water had smoothed them. The dearth of such suitable material in the New World led the Scots soldiers and later immigrants to fashion stones of iron and wood, eventually designing the stones used today, made of Scottish granite. And proof of the adage that
wherever Scots go they curl was the founding of the Royal Montreal Curling Club in 1807, the oldest sporting club in North America.
The passion for the game by the fathers of Canadian curling was such that refinements came early. Artificial ice was created on a wharf in 1808 at Beauport, Que., since the river ice was too rough for a good match. Covered rinks began sprouting up in settled areas as early as 1840, and by 1900 artificial ice was made on top of wooden floors. The move inside dramatically altered the
game. In the old country and on outdoor sheets, the stones were delivered from a crouched stance in a “crampit.” On indoor surfaces, the hack (the rubber footholds universally used today) was developed, giving the curlers greater mobility and leading to the introduction of the sliding delivery in the 1890s by Bob Dunbar, the terror of Winnipeg sheets in those days.
The Canadians so revolutionized the game, with pebbled ice surfaces, sliding deliveries, takeout shots, furious and intricate sweeping, that by the turn of the century Scots came to Canada to relearn their game.
The Prairies, specifically Winnipeg, became the heartland of the sport. But all is not entirely well with the old game in its adopted home. “It is a cyclical thing,” says Laurie Artiss, an executive of the CCA and general chairman of Regina’s host committee for the 1983 Silver Broom. “The 1960s were a boom period, and Brier hosts have a growth in their cities afterwards, but participation is dropping off somewhat.” Some clubs are closing, mainly downtown facilities no longer able to handle the burden of urban taxes, and some clubs are being assimilated by others. “Traditionally in the West,” says Artiss, “the curling clubs in the towns were the social centre. That aspect of the game has never been better, but now there is more competition from other recreations— racket sports, cross-country skiing, etc. The days when we could just open the club’s doors and watch everyone pour in are over. The game as a whole has to do a better job of promoting itself.”
Part of the problem in the West is the tradition of foursomes joining clubs as a rink. If not asked to be on a team, curlers are often out of luck. “Our system works against increasing memberships,” says Artiss. “In the East, you join a club and are put on a team. We’re going to have to move in that direction. The West never thought it could learn anything from the East about curling.”
They need look no further east than Thunder Bay, where the folks have adoringly embraced their latest conquering heroes. Since 1975, Thunder Bay rinks have won two Briers and placed second in three more. The champions—Hackner, vice-skip Rick Lang, second Bob Nicol and lead Bruce Kennedy—couldn’t “walk down the street or go into the grocery store without people coming up and shaking our hands,” Hackner said last week, while admitting that he and his teammates were still “floating” after their victory. The entire city rallied behind the team with a fund-raising drive (merchants challenged others on the radio to match their contributions) highlighted by a social last weekend. The campaign, a modern reflection of the game’s roots in
community life, achieved its goal. Enough was collected to send the players’ wives to West Germany with the team.
Unlike many sports, those at the top of the game of curling don’t become rich. The Hackner rink curled well enough in the cash spiel season (early fall to Christmas) to win $12,000, which was “about the break-even point,” says Hackner. The kings of the hill this season were the Bert Gretzinger rink from Kelowna, B.C., with winnings of $47,000. “We really had a hot streak,” says Gretzinger, which started with a $24,000 victory at the car spiel in Vernon. “It was about time,” he laughs. “My last hot streak was in ’75.” After the take was split four ways and expenses deducted, even this year’s prize leaders decided to keep their day jobs. And the winnings didn’t come easy. The cash ($35,000 total in Saskatoon) attracts the top rinks. Tuning for the gauntlet, they must survive the club, regional and provincial playdowns to gain a berth in the Brier. “At Saskatoon,” says Gretzinger, “31 rinks could have won. The hardest part is mental, staying in 10 or 11 games in four days.” Perhaps superstition has a place as well. “We used to curl well for most of a spiel, then seem to get tired,” Gretzinger says. Losing to teams using push brooms rather than the old corn brooms, he decided to switch.
The slap and pop of corn brooms echoing in chilly arenas has been part of the game for generations. But at the Scotch Cup (now the Silver Broom) in 1964, the Scots introduced the silent push broom. “The difference is it’s quieter,” says Gretzinger, “and you don’t have Cro-Magnon man pounding on a corn broom anymore.” The switch in brooms didn’t help the Gretzinger rink in the B.C. provincials, and it was Brent Giles who lost to Hackner in the Brier final.
“I was never more ecstatic,” says Rick Lang of the win over Giles. But his rapture was quickly tempered when he was told that the international governing body of the sport had adopted a rule change directed at the push brooms and specifically at those who sweep like Lang. Following the rock down the ice, Lang leans over, placing the push broom in front of the rock and “snowplows” it toward the house. The new rule, in effect for next week’s world championship, bans his manoeuvre, stipulating that brooms must pass from side to side in front of the rock. Both Kennedy and Nicol sweep across the rock, so only Lang will have to adjust. But neither he nor Hackner is happy about it. “In Canada, we do it to clear debris from in front of the rock,” says the skip. “We’re hoping that the rock won’t run on a straw or something.”
As Lang hoped for practice time to change his style of sweeping (“It won’t affect the rock but will totally alter my perspective of its progress”), his thoughts turned to the championship. “It used to be that the Brier winners considered themselves the best in the world. But Canadian curling schools have been going to Europe for eight or nine years. They’ve learned how to do everything correctly from the beginning and probably know our game better than we do.”
The Saskatoon rink of Rick Folk won the Broom in 1980, the first Canadian victory since 1972. The Hackner foursome suffers no delusions. Lang has been there before, with Bill Tetley’s Thunder Bay rink in 1975. “We’d won the Brier, but when we didn’t win the Broom we came back feeling like losers. When we started out in January there were about 75,000 curlers in the hunt for the Brier. Now there is just the four of us. And we’ve learned from experience that there’s a huge difference between first and second.”
Yet there is the feeling that, win or lose, the people of Thunder Bay will still cherish their heroes. And out on the Prairies next year with the Silver Broom in Regina, the women’s world championship in Moose Jaw and the world junior championship in Medicine Hat, the game’s heart is still beating strong.
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