Feature: Estonia curling - A success story all round

  • Stephen speaking with ECA secretary, Harri Lill at the first home of Estonian Curling Photo © WCF / Richard Gray

This season's World Junior Curling Championships (WJCC) marked an important milestone for Estonia, and for the World Curling Federation (WCF) - it was the first time the country had hosted a curling world championship event and the first time Estonian teams represented their country at this level.

This marks just how far curling has come in Estonia, considering that just 11 years ago the Estonian Curling Association (ECA), which was founded in 2002, didn’t even have dedicated curling ice.

It wasn’t until December 2004 that, in a former Soviet missile factory in the nation's capital Tallinn, the first dedicated curling ice was officially opened. Then, in another big step forward, the Tondiraba Ice Hall opened in October 2014 with a brand new, purpose-built three-sheet curling rink. Tondiraba was the host venue for the WJCC 2015, with one of the ice hockey rinks there used to provide the five sheets needed.

Harri Lill is the secretary of the ECA and a key member of the local organising committee, and he is clear about how important the event was for Estonian curling. He said: “This is a big chance for us. It’s probably the most important event we’ve ever had in terms of Estonian curling. This new facility helps us to have this chance - without it we wouldn’t - and of course it’s a test for us to see if we can manage to organise such an event.”

For the ECA, the event wasn’t just a chance to challenge themselves in hosting but it was also a major opportunity for their top junior players. Skip Robert-Kent Päll and his team started the tournament on top form to beat Italy 7-6.

After the match Robert said: “It is really special to open with a win on home ice.” It may have been the men's only win but the Estonian women did even better.

Skip Marie Turmann and her team beat both the Czech Republic and England to finish in eighth place. Marie spoke of her pride after their first win and what it was like playing at home.

She said: “It feels good to represent Estonia and to win a game because it’s the first time for us. We feel a bit under pressure because lots of people are watching us and the media is talking about us but I think that it’s good to play at home because we don’t have the nerves of playing in a foreign country.”

One of the attractions for all teams - especially juniors starting out on their international careers - is to play a major event in a foreign country, and Tallinn and Estonia are no different as far as that is concerned.

Canada's third player Danielle Schmiemann speaks for many when she said: "To get to play in such a great competition - it’s been incredible. People tell you about it, but you never know what it’s like until you’re actually here. You can’t put it into words. You don't understand until you’re actually here.”

Like any major sports event, the WJCC couldn’t happen without volunteers but, unlike the 25,000 volunteers needed to make the Sochi Olympic Winter Games possible, there were only some 30 volunteers involved in Tallinn.

Teet Soasepp, or Ted as his English-speaking friends call him, was one of them. Ted comes from Estonia and is a student at Tallinn University. The ECA and Tallinn University have worked together to put on previous curling events, and to attract potential volunteers to the WJCC.

Ted explained how he got involved at the WJCC. He said: “I’m studying at Tallinn University and I got the news from my friend who I study with. She told me that Harri needed some help and I thought...'I got free time, why not'?"

This was Ted’s first-ever experience of curling. He said: "It’s been really interesting so far. I didn’t know what to expect because I have never played curling before. It’s fascinating and interesting. Everything matters and I’m learning something new every day.”

All of this combines to have a big impact on Estonia and curling in the country. Minister for Culture, Urve Tiidus was present at the opening ceremony. She said: “To have a world curling championship here is very important to Estonia. For us, this is a new experience. For Estonia, curling is a very new sport and we all know that curling, as a sport, is growing in popularity. I hope that this sport has a good future in this country.”

The other main impact an event like this has is economic. The exact figures are not yet known but Harri compared the WJCC to Rally Estonia, which was included on the FIA European Rally Championship calendar for the first time in 2014.

Harri explained: “There is a state institute that deals with researching the impact of different projects. For example, we've Rally Estonia and it had a €3million impact on the economy. We are trying to get the numbers for the WJCC but it will probably not be known until after the event.”

These Championships have truly been a success for Estonia. They have shown how far things have come since the days of the Soviet missile factory and, crucially, that Estonia is capable of hosting a world curling event. There are lessons for other curling nations in what Estonian curling has achieved around this event.