Curling for the Win
The centuries-old sport continues to thrive and the Great Canadian Pond Spiel is a fun-filled reminder of its origin on natural ice.
Brooms are nearly as iconic a symbol of curling as the rocks themselves, but at the Great Canadian Pond Spiel, brooms are more about fun than skill, says Kathy Stranks. The Orangeville resident and avid curler hasn’t missed the outdoor event at Island Lake in its 10-year history. “People make a grand show of sweeping at the pond spiel,” she says, “but it’s all for show. Sweeping makes no difference on Mother Nature’s ice.”
Organized by the Orangeville Curling Club, the pond spiel is a throwback to the days when the centuries-old game was played outdoors on natural ice. (Curling has long since moved indoors onto artificial ice where sweeping does affect a rock’s trajectory.) The annual pond spiel is now an entertaining diversion in a sport hundreds of thousands of Canadians take very seriously. By just about any measure – number of players, Olympic medals, size of audience – Canucks dominate the curling world. The sport’s popularity in Scotland, the nation of its birth, hardly registers by comparison.
But strategy and all that stuff, according to Kathy, will be forgotten on pond spiel day, slated for the first Saturday in February. That’s when curlers from across the province and beyond will arrive in Orangeville to take part in an event so popular that spots are scooped up almost as soon as the entry deadline is announced. Ninety-six curlers (24 rinks, or teams, of four players each on four sheets of ice), dozens of volunteers and scores of spectators will descend on Island Lake Conservation Area.
Many come prepared – if wearing spaghetti-strap evening gowns or dressing up like rapper group Black Eyed Peas is your idea of how to get ready for a couple of days outside deep in the Canadian winter. Kathy’s rink focused on a different dress code the first year they competed. They wore life jackets in case the ice on Island Lake gave way.
Costumes are a big part of the fun. In a tribute to the sport’s country of origin, kilts, tams and curling sweaters are the most popular “uniform.” And a piper leads the players onto the ice for each of the event’s three draws. It takes almost two hours to complete a draw, or game, so what you wear is important, especially when a February wind is blowing, as it usually is on Island Lake.
Over the decade of pond spiels, Kathy has weathered wind, rain and snow, as well as sunshine, with the mercury dipping to −27C. “When the Scots invented this game,” she says, “there must have been a lot of alcohol involved!”
Outdoor curling isn’t for the faint of heart. Natural ice is described as “heavy,” says Kathy. “I’ve had to slide out practically on my face to get the rock all the way to the house.” Sometimes rocks flip over on the rough ice. Cindy Glassford, an avid participant who managed the Orangeville Curling Club for 11 years, adds, “If you get ripples in the ice, you get ripples. The wind blows. We’re outside. We’re Canadian.” Cindy says she loves the event “because of the sound of adults laughing. They’re like kids again.”
The first time I curled, I laughed a lot, too. Not because of Mother Nature’s ice or funny costumes, though my teammates and I did need a sense of humour. In Grade 13 at Mayfield Secondary School, our phys-ed teacher, Mrs. Meisner, decided we should learn to curl. Short just about everything required, our teacher improvised. A long hallway was our “sheet” of “ice.” Plastic Javex bottles filled with sand were our rocks. I can’t recall what we used as brooms, but whatever we did with them was definitely only for show.
Given this introduction to the sport, you can imagine my surprise when I played for the first time with rocks made of granite on a surface made of frozen water.
That game took place when Amy Darrell and her partner, Matt Carnwell, invited my friend Lisa Wegner and me to take part in a social pizza night at the Orangeville Curling Club. Arriving at the designated time, we learned we had an hour to kill before we began throwing rocks (also called stones). “Not a problem,” said Matt, and quick as you can say “hurry hard,” Chris the bartender served up our beers.
Before long we were deep in conversation with Martin Woodhouse, the club’s president, as well as several other regulars. By the time I’d finished my local brew, it was our turn to hit the ice. Fortunately for me and Lisa, who had never curled, not even with Javex bottles, our opposition were also beginners, and our teammates, Amy and Matt, were ringers, at least by our standards.
Our opposition, starting with Brad Brown and Brian Johnson, were club regulars. Both men coach on Sunday afternoons with Special Olympics Dufferin. The rest of their rink was made up of Brian’s parents, who had driven from Brampton to play with their son. We received a few pointers, threw a rock or two to warm up, and then jumped in with both feet – literally.
Those who know anything about curling will be aware that a rink consists of four players: a lead, a second, a vice (or third) and the skip. An “end,” similar to a set in tennis or an inning in baseball, involves every member of both rinks, starting with the lead. Each rink member throws two rocks, alternating with their counterparts from the competing team.
We’d lost the coin toss, so I was up first for our rink. Our opposition had the “hammer,” the final rock in curling lingo. With images of Canadian curling icons Sandra Schmirler and Brad Gushue in my head, I believed I’d slide gracefully down the ice toward the near hog line, where I would gently release the rock with a delicate turn of my wrist to make it “curl” – just as I’d seen it done on TV.
In truth, I pushed off from the “hack” (like the starting blocks in sprinting) tilted to one side, using the rock to prevent me from falling over. Then, at least three metres short of the hog line, I came to a full stop and gave the rock a good shove. It went hurtling down the ice staying – thank you, thank you, thank you – on our “sheet,” though it did slide straight through the “house” and past the “ring” (the bull’s eye) on its way out of play. Hmm, I thought. This is harder than it looks.
It turns out I’m not the first person to discover that curling requires more skill than expected. Barb Hulse, a member of a multigenerational curling family in Orangeville, said, “When I grew up, it was only the nerds who curled. Now they realize it’s hard and not nerdy at all.”
I never got much better at delivering my rock. Sure, sometimes it stayed in play. Once someone else’s rock knocked mine onto the “button,” as curlers call the centre circle in the ring. I tried using a “slider” one time. It’s a smooth piece of plastic you attach to the bottom of one shoe to help you slide down the ice. On TV it looks elegant and simple. My attempt was neither.
I noticed that a number of players, including our competition, used long handles to push their rocks, thereby avoiding having to get down to ice level. These devices, similar to those used in shuffleboard, are popular among curlers for whom balance or flexibility is a problem.
When I wasn’t throwing a rock, I had time to watch the games on each side of us and was surprised to see that our fellow curlers were young – and really good. Lawn bowlers, tennis players and hikers are mostly grey-haired. Not so for curling. Friday night for these teenagers was spent at the rink.
Sarah Madden, a recent graduate of Orangeville District Secondary School, plays in both a women’s and a mixed league, and is a member of an under-21 competitive team. She was curling with Greg Inglis who had driven from Mississauga. Greg plays three weekly matches and is on an under-21 competitive men’s team. Sarah told me she was taking a year off between high school and college to work, though she admitted she was spending more time at the rink than at her job. I wondered if there was a curling romance in the air.
Back on the ice, it was my turn to sweep – a term that describes what curlers did when they used corn brooms. Now that small push brooms have replaced corn brooms, the term is sometimes “brush,” but either way, it was fun to half trot, half slide my way down the sheet using my broom to heat up the ice immediately in front of the rock. This makes the rock curl less. I was better at sweeping than throwing, and it warmed me up nicely. I soon removed my down vest.
After six ends we shook hands with our opponents. Over the course of about 90 minutes (a recreational game is normally eight ends and takes about two hours), we’d had plenty of time to chat. You never get too far away from your fellow curlers, which helps explain why the game is so social.
Making friends at the rink is key to Barb’s love of curling. A 37-year veteran of the sport, she says, “I know my best friends through the curling club.” In fact, one of Barb’s curling friends is Kathy Stranks, the pond spiel keener. Kathy recently married Barb’s brother and is now part of the Hulse family curling dynasty. Other curlers in the family are Jim Hulse, Barb’s father-in-law, and her husband, Jeff, as well as the couple’s four children and at least one of their grandchildren. That makes four generations of Hulse curlers.
Starting out in Hillsburgh and then Grand Valley, Jim’s early experience of curling was similar in some ways to the pond spiel variety. “We played on hockey ice, which was full of ruts, and if there was a big snowstorm, we had to sweep snow off the ice,” he recalls. Turns out those old arenas, now mostly condemned, leaked – badly.
“I’m old enough to remember that when the guys from Orangeville came to play in Hillsburgh, they arrived by train,” says Jim. I tried to imagine Jim’s opposition climbing aboard the train at the station in Orangeville. They would have taken it to Cataract where they’d pick up a train heading southwest toward Elora with stops in Erin and then Hillsburgh. If that doesn’t sound like a long enough journey, then consider this: “In those days,” Jim says, “you brought your own rocks to a bonspiel and they carried them on the train, too.”
With our game finished, we only had to line up our rocks at the end of the ice for the next rink. Back in the warm bar, we sat down with our fellow players and chatted away over beer, wine and a slice or two, recalling our best shots or, in my case, my least bad ones. The place was packed. Energy was high. Young Sarah, her friend Greg and their pals were there, chatting among themselves, while others enjoyed the company of their siblings and parents. Later when I asked Anthony Hulse, aka AJ, Barb and Jeff’s 29-year-old son, what he’d miss most if he had to give up curling, he said, “My dad. I’d miss playing with my dad.”
I asked Amy why she had picked up the game. She replied, “I was hooked after taking a set of learn-to-curl lessons.” Four years later, she and Matt, both in their early 40s, can’t get enough time on the ice. They play a weekly league game and Matt spares for another team. They’d curl more if their busy lives allowed it. Like Barb, they love the social aspect of the game, and like former club manager Cindy, they’ve discovered it’s also pretty good exercise.
Cindy has curled for more than 25 years, most of them with her husband, Kevin, until his death last year. Like many others, she thought curling was a sport for wimps until she tried it and became a regular. In addition to managing the club, she was part of a small group, including Barb, that dreamed up the club’s most beloved event: the annual Great Canadian Pond Spiel.
While the pond spiel is great fun, there’s more to it than costumes and laughter. It generates more than $25,000 for the Orangeville Curling Club. This helps explain how the club is able to offer so many programs, including learn-to-curl as well as both junior and school leagues, in addition to men’s, women’s and co-ed play. “Our community supported us,” Barb says, “so we support our community.” Her family are among a host of curlers who have raised money for Parkinson Canada, the Heart and Stroke Foundation, Ronald McDonald House and more.
Community-mindedness may stem from the game’s spirit. “There’s no ‘me’ in curling; you can’t win as an individual,” says Barb. “It’s a team sport and a family sport.” In The Sporting Scots of Nineteenth Century Canada, writer Gerald Redmond suggested that both Scots and Canadians excel at curling because of their “democratic tendencies.” For Barb’s family, one highlight was the filming of the movie Men with Brooms, some of which was shot in Orangeville. “We got to be extras on set and we’re all in the film,” she says.
Despite working and raising four children and a growing number of grandkids, Barb says there’s never been a year she hasn’t been involved in curling. Cindy’s husband played with his sons almost to the day he died. Jim’s six-year-old great-grandson has already made his curling debut. Amy and Matt can’t wait to get on the ice. Kathy is unlikely to ever miss a pond spiel.
Back at the Orangeville Curling Club, you can sign up for the eight-week-long novice league for $80. If you’re brave, you can even join a team for the Great Canadian Pond Spiel. But beware, it seems curling is a lifelong commitment.
Curling in Canada
Not surprisingly, a game that involves throwing rocks along ice and not much more dates back a long way. By the mid-1500s the Scots were playing outdoors on their famous lochs. Two centuries later the game followed Scottish immigrants to other cold-weather countries, including Canada, the United States, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland. These countries continue to dominate the sport internationally.
Curling came first to Lower Canada, where it took on a character of its own when iron, rather than granite, was used for the rocks. It’s believed the military melted down cannonballs and formed them into kettle-shaped curling stones that weighed as much as 65 pounds. Canada’s first curling club formed in 1807 in Montreal, and it too used iron rocks.
Producing granite rocks was also problematic in Upper Canada when the sport migrated there some years later. Curlers often used wooden rocks. Eventually granite stones became available and prevailed, despite some grumbling from clubs that had invested in iron. To this day much of the granite comes from Wales, as Welsh granite is more dense than that found elsewhere in the world, including in our Canadian Shield.
Curling is a popular sport in Canada, which boasts more than 1.5 million players and about 1,500 clubs. Founded in 1834, the Fergus Curling Club is the oldest continuously operating curling club in Ontario. The Orangeville Curling Club opened in 1888.
Curling has had a spotty history at the Olympics, becoming an official sport (for men only) at the 1924 Games in Chamonix, France. It was then dropped, except for four appearances as a demonstration sport, until it won permanent status at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. In 2006, wheelchair curling was added to the Paralympic Games in Turin, Italy, and in 2018, mixed curling made its Olympic debut in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Canada is an international powerhouse and has won six gold, three silver and two bronze medals in Olympic play, as well as three gold and one bronze at the Paralympics.
The game has evolved over time. Significantly, it moved indoors, and a free-guard zone was instituted in the 1990s. The latter means that the first five rocks played are protected if they come to a stop between the far hog line and the tee line, excluding the house. The free-guard change (and arguably indoor play) has made the game more offence-oriented and more entertaining to watch.
Of the many bonspiels that take place in Canada every year, the Brier may be the most prestigious. The winning team represents the country at the World Men’s Curling Championship. The Brier is named for a brand of tobacco sold by the Macdonald Tobacco Company, which sponsored the tourney for more than 50 years until 1979. It has had a number of different corporate sponsors since, but the storied name remains.
Curling in and around Headwaters
The 2020 Great Canadian Pond Spiel takes place on Saturday, February 1. For information, visit the Orangeville Curling Club website.