2013 Tim Hortons Roar of the Rings – Canadian Olympic Curling Trials
Presented by Monsanto

Small-town clubs are the lifeblood of curling

Winters in Manitoba can be harsh to say the least. The story I always go back to when I describe how cold the winters can be was from January 2004 when I was curling in the Manitoba Curling Association (MCA) bonspiel with Sean Grassie.

Nolan Thiessen, second from, right, and his Brandon-Vincent Massey High School teammates, from left, Jeremy Bryson, Trevor Taylor and Mike Horn during a bonspiel in Macgregor, Man. (Photo, courtesy Nolan Thiessen)

Mid-week as we were slugging it out in the minor events, I arrived for a morning draw despite the wind-chill factor of -50 C! The fifth-end break was extended so that all the curlers could go outside to warm up their cars; otherwise we’d have all been stranded at the West St. Paul Curling Club.

Curling is one of the best ways that Manitobans and everyone from the Prairies pass the time during those cold winter months. Curling is definitely ingrained in the culture in Manitoba and the results speak for themselves. Look at the teams at the Roar of the Rings in December, of the 12 teams already qualified, four are from Manitoba (not to mention Manitoba transplants such as Dave Nedohin and myself on teams hailing from Alberta).

My parents were like most people who lived in a small town on the Prairies. In the winter, they spent the majority of their time at the curling club. When I was three months old I was left asleep in my baby bucket, under the trophy case in the Pilot Mound Curling Club while my mom went out to curl a league game. Obviously my parents had a love for the game if they left their newborn to be looked after by the locals because they couldn’t miss a league game; and that love was instilled in me.

The Brier was the one week a year where my sister and I were not allowed to control the TV channels, as my folks wanted to watch curling on TV. So being a sports nut I sat down and took it all in, and did what I did with every other sport I watched on TV by trying to emulate what the guys were doing. My only issue is that I was doing it with masking tape on the carpet and baseballs and tennis balls as rocks. But in 1992, when Vic Peters won the Brier for Manitoba over Russ Howard, I decided it was time to try curling for real. I decided that the masking tape curling rings in the basement wasn’t cutting it anymore and I wanted the real thing.

When the 1995 world championships rolled into my hometown of Brandon and Manitoban Kerry Burtnyk won the title, I was officially hooked. Two friends and I decided it was time to quit hockey and turn to curling all winter. After picking up another keener from another school, we proceeded to play in the Brandon Curling Club Men’s League and supplemented that with spiels all winter long all over Manitoba.

The majority of the bonspiels we entered were in small towns across Manitoba. Small-town clubs is where the grassroots of this game are found, particularly on the Prairies. We played so much that you couldn’t help but learn the strategy and how to play the game; but we also learned the camaraderie of curling and what it means to this country. We learned that curling isn’t just played in arenas for us to watch on our TVs; curling is played on two- and three-sheeters across the country. It is supported by countless volunteers, whether it is the drawmaster, the bartender or the locals who baked pies to bring in for the concession during the men’s spiel (shout out to my Grandma Lynne).

A young Nolan Thiessen shows some early flashes of that smooth form while throwing at his home Brandon Curling Club. (Photo, courtesy Nolan Thiessen)

We eagerly played on the toaster ‘spiel circuit in towns such as Miami, Neepawa, Deloraine, Virden, Treherne and Souris. We played against teams two, three and four times older than us. We played a team at the Miami Men’s one year whose youngest player was older than all four of our ages combined. What other sport can you actually play a competitive game where you can say that?

I think my story is more of the norm than the exception for most of the players in the Tim Hortons Roar of the Rings this December. Ask any of us and I am sure we all have stories of playing in small towns across Canada, getting the repetitions necessary to become the world class and learning the game. Nobody walks into the Roar of the Rings after playing the game for a year or two; we’ve all played thousands of games over the years and there are players out there who have hung losses on us whom you would be amazed at!

To this day every time I go into a small-town curling club, whether it be for a WCT event or a kids curling clinic, I get a joyous feeling that I am back in the true lifeblood of the game. It’s easy to forget those things sometimes when you are playing in front of 10,000 people, in what is normally an NHL arena.

So the next time that you are playing in a local toaster ‘spiel and your opponents are a team of teenagers, just remember you might be playing against a future world or Olympic champion and you might be one of the people who help teach them the sport of curling.