Curling: A sport united through passion

  • Canadian Glenn Howard coached Scotland women at ECC 2016 Photo: © WCF / Jeffrey Au

At the recent Le Gruyère AOP European Curling Championships 2016 in Braehead, Scotland our Sport Media Trainee, Jolene Latimer set herself a challenge of writing a series of articles connecting the European event to curling in North America. Here she charts the growth of the sport in North America and its Scottish roots...

Kevin Martin still remembers the smell of his childhood curling club.

“It smelled like homemade food. The whole building, especially during bonspiels — mom and all the other grandmas made homemade pies and burgers.”

It was a community.

Glenn Howard remembers the same thing. “I don’t know of any sport where you start with a handshake, you end with a handshake, and actually socialise with them after a game,” he said. “You’re sort of bitter rivals on the ice. But then after, when you’re done, you don’t mind sitting down.”

Curling has been woven into the fabric of North American communities — a mainstay, a gathering point, a plumb line: uniting rivals and friends.

It all started in 1807.

This was the time the Montreal Curling Club was founded. It’s Canada’s oldest curling club, and it is thanks to this club that curling holds the distinction of being the first organised sport in North America.

The United States soon followed suit with a club of their own — the Orchard Lake Curling Club in 1835.

In fact, you could even say curling in North America predates this club, with some pointing to 1760 on the St. Charles River as its North American birthdate. Scottish settlers and soldiers imported the sport to North America, using irons instead of the granite used in Scotland.

The settlers and their neighbours quickly made the sport their own.

In the cold, snowy winters of Quebec and Ontario, as well as the Northern United States, the sport became a way for people to engage with each other and their communities — providing both opportunities for men and women to play.

Women on the ice of course caused quite a clamour back in Scotland. Not merely for the fact that they were on the ice but because they beat the men. The Scottish men who, about 100 years after the founding of Canada’s first curling club, in 1903, made a trip to North America for some friendly competition.

"When it became known that there were many keen curlers among the Quebec ladies who were anxious to have a game with the Scottish curlers,” wrote John Kerr, captain of the Scottish men’s team, “it was arranged that two rinks of the bachelors should be told to play the ladies, the married contingent being strongly desirous that the ladies should score a victory.”

It was a ladies victory indeed. Miss Brodie, skipping against Mr. Prain, won by a full nine points the records state.

In this way the connection between the Scots and the North Americans as far as curling was concerned, carried over in the 1900s. While the Scots taught the Canadians how to play, you could say the Canadian women taught the Scots something of their own.

Curling continued its grassroots growth in North America throughout the 1900s as Scottish settlers moved to the prairies and brought the game with them out west.

“A lot of the communities in the prairies, one of the first things they built was a curling rink,” said Warren Hansen, author of Curling. “The curling rink became the focal center of the social life of the community.”

But there were curlers, Hansen among them — famously part of Hec Gervais’ squad — who wanted the sport to be less social and more professional. Within less than seventy years of that fateful Scottish-Canadian game, the Canadians were taking steps to contribute to the curling world their advances: this time to professionalise.

“Everybody was smoking back in the day,” said Howard. “You’d walk into the lobby and your clothes would reek afterward.”

Hansen, a voice inside the Canadian Curling Association for years after his competitive curling career ended, noticed this too.

“I can remember walking into the change rooms and it was just a wall of smoke in the curling room,” said Hansen over the phone. He curled out of the Thistle Curling Club in Edmonton and the sight of the smoke still lingers in his memory.

“I remember the old Thistle club where lights hung down from the ceiling,” he said. “I remember it was just this haze that hung around the lights.”

His first big push as a curler was to ban smoking on the ice at the Brier, and to add elements into the game that made it a real sport in the eyes of non-curlers.

“At the 1980 Brier in Calgary it was the first time we introduced any officiating and game control,” he said. “It comes back to the professional presentation and acceptance by the non-curling world.”

This move to professionalise the sport and turn it into something beyond a mere pastime and hobby, was accelerated by the inclusion of curling into the Olympics.

“Curling was sociable, family, you met people around your area,” said David Garber, former Executive Director of USA Curl who worked for the association before and after curling became an Olympic sport. “You’d see them, a lot of these people every year at their bonspiels, and there were some really good curlers, varied in their abilities.”

But then the Olympics happened. “The movement toward a professional sport could only exist in the U.S. with the Olympics,” he said.

It was this move toward professionalism that inspired curlers — lead by Kevin Martin — to band together and find a way to financially incentivize the sport for athletes. It was their boycott of the Brier and the development of Grand Slams that made the sport professionally viable.

“We were helping the sport become younger, more fit, and more professional,” said Martin. “I could see the sport was never going to go anywhere because young people couldn’t get into it.”

With the Grand Slams came a longer season, with a longer season more exposure and with more exposure the corporate dollars started to flow.

“I would have felt really bad if that wouldn’t have worked,” said Martin.

“That was a big statement made by competitive curlers that was necessary,” said Howard, who was part of the boycott.

There was some push-back to this evolution. “It’s another period of time where the sport was slow to evolve,” said Hansen. “People still frowned upon you if you made money out of curling. That just wasn’t supposed to be the way things were. It was a whole different attitude.”

But eventually it paid dividends, not just for the men but for the women who had been playing alongside them since curling’s arrival in North America.

“Women’s curling wouldn’t be where it is today without what the men did back then,” said Jennifer Jones, Olympic gold medalist for Canada. “There’s no way that we would have the grand slams,” she said before adding, “We’re really lucky with curling in the sense that we have the same television exposure as men, and it’s very rare to have that.”

“It’s funny,” she said, “because people say [the Olympic win] will go down in record books, but I pinch myself because that’s not why I got into curling. I can’t even believe that we’ll be remembered. I have a hard time with that because it’s almost surreal. I didn’t play to get records, I played because I absolutely love it, it is my passion.”

From the St. Charles River to the Montreal Curling Club, from Scotland to Canada to the U.S.A., from two-sheet curling clubs filled with the smell of homemade burgers to Olympic arenas this is the thread that has pulled curling together through the centuries.

“It just became ingrained in our family,” said Howard.

“I grew up at the curling club,” said Jones.

“I used to sit there and watch my father play and hope some game would end early and maybe the ice maker would let me throw rocks for a couple ends,” said Hansen.

From iron stones to granite. From outdoor to indoor. The History of Curling shows that it is a sport united through passion.