HISTORY OF CURLING
Library and Archives Canada holds one of the richest collections of documents on curling in Canada, acquired from various regional, national, and international curling bodies. In Bonspiel!, selections from these records are united under the theme of playing and enjoying the unofficial national sport of curling.
See the collection here: https://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/curling/index-e.html
Go to the Curling Canada Hall of Fame & Museum website:
Excerpts from Canada Curls: An Illustrated History of Curling in Canada, by Doug Maxwell (Whitecap Books, 2002)
How did curling get started in Canada?
Scottish newcomers [pre-Confederation] … had some curling in their background, [and] there were others who wanted to help alleviate the long winters with some kind of sporting activity, and wondered if curling might be the way to do so.
Changes [as the sport developed] included the move from outdoor ice to covered rinks; the growth of friendly matches between adjacent towns; the advent of artificial ice; the building of roads and railway and the growth of communication; eventually regional and provincial competition and then national championships; world championships; and the Olympics.
Curling had become an essential element of grassroots Canada. Through its long history, it became a sport attractive to all levels of society, all ages of participants – a lifetime persuasion.
Early curling stones in Canada
Iron curling “stones,” shaped like tea kettles and weighing about 60 to 80 pounds [27 to 36 kg] each, for men, 40 to 48 pounds [18 to 21 kg] for women, were the first stones to be used in the latter half of the eighteenth century [in Canada].
There are no records, in Scotland or anywhere else, indicating iron stones. When twenty merchants in Montreal elected to form the Montreal Curling Club in 1807, they used irons exclusively.
The Montreal Curling Club and 1807 are both significant: that curling club became the first organized sporting club in North America. Irons were used in Montreal and throughout the Ottawa Valley until the mid-1900s. Today they can be found in various parts of the country in trophy cases, as hog-line sentinels, as historical curios, or even doorstops at the local club.
In recent years, [granite] curling stones have been manufactured in Scotland, but the granite has been quarried in the Trefor Mountains of Wales. Still, many have asked why Canada, with at least half of it nestled in the Precambrian shield, and with its wealth of granite, with its million-plus curlers and over 1,100 clubs, has not been able to produce stones suitable for the game.
It seemed that nothing could be found to replace the granites from the island of Ailsa Craig, sometimes known as Paddy’s Milestone, set in the Irish Sea off the Ayrshire coast of Scotland. Ailsa Craig granite is the hardest, purest, most dense granite extant. It is impervious to moisture, which in coarser granite freezes, expands, and “pops out” the impurities in the lesser stone, leaving it with an imperfect running surface.
In the early game of curling, there were no specific dimensions for a curling stone, neither height nor weight nor diameter nor circumference. The early game was played with stones of varying sizes, shapes and weights-small ones that could skinny through a narrow port, huge ones that made a fantastic guard once in place, impossible to move.
Shortly after the formation of the Grand Caledonian Curling Club in Scotland in 1838, there was a move toward standardization of stones. But even when the basic measurements were agreed upon, there was considerable controversy over the sole of the stone. And for some considerable time the matter of the running surface stirred much debate. Should it be flat? Concave? Convex? Which was best? Most predictable?
The sport moves west with the railway
When the last spike of the Canadian Pacific Railway was driven in 1885, the CPR set out to convert much of the land it had been given into farmland. Its immigration efforts, particularly in Great Britain, Europe, and the Ukraine, helped open up the West. And as settlers moved from eastern Canada and the United States to join those from overseas, curling tagged along and quickly became a staple of the new villages and towns.
In 1879, Manitoba’s first curling club was formed, in Winnipeg. December 11 saw the first match held there and, as was the custom, the losers were required to donate a barrel of oatmeal to the hospital.
That same year, 1879, saw the first curling in Saskatchewan, in Prince Albert, Rosthern, and Battleford. It would be another ten years before curling arrived in Regina.
In Alberta, the first curling club was formed in Lethbridge in 1887. Although there had been curling in Calgary since 1885, it wasn’t until 1888 that the Calgary Curling Club was formally brought into being, and became affiliated with the Manitoba Branch of the RCCC. Edmonton began its curling in the same year – 1888. In 1889, curling came to Macleod, Banff, and Anthracite. The arrival of the railroad not only helped open up the foothills, but it also made travel between curling centres that much easier. Curling was booming.
Scots miners brought the game to the interior of British Columbia toward the end of the nineteenth century. The first club was formed in Kaslo in 1895, and within three years, the Kootenay Curling Association played host to a bonspiel that drew eighteen teams from Rossland, Sandon, Revelstoke, and Kaslo.
Curling and the military
Curling in Canada has always been aligned, historically, with the military, and their early offshoot, the police force. It was the military that brought curling to Canada, and early accounts of the game are replete with references to Colonel Smith or Major Jones or the Commissioner of Police. When early regiments were disbanded in Canada, and their members given tracts of land, the regimental officers became the elite of the new community, and often formed the first curling clubs.
In 1910, there was a major societal change that helped foster curling everywhere. Starting in the US, and then moving into Canada, the five-day work week was introduced, slowly at first, and then with growing prevalence. “The weekend,” with all its implications for extended leisure pursuits, had arrived.
Of even greater importance to the growth of curling was the opening up of the western provinces with paved highways. In the first days of the game on the Prairies, small, one- and two-sheet clubs were built close to the players’ homes. But as highways replaced dirt roads and cars became more common, it became ever easier for curlers to drive to a newer club with more sheets of ice where greater numbers could gather.
There was nothing fancy about most clubs. What was important was the sense of belonging, of becoming involved in a game that attracted most members of the community.
Introduction of in-turns and out-turns
Curlers take it for granted that there has always been an in-turn and an out-turn in the delivery of the stone. Not so.
In the Scotland of the late 1700s, curlers simply threw their stones up and down the ice. Straight handle, no turn. Then the curlers in the parish of Fenwick (pronounced Fen-ick) discovered that if you imparted a turn, or as they called it, a twist, to the handle in delivery, their stone would curl around an opposition rock and be hidden.
The uproar that ensued over this “illegal” method of play threatened to split the game apart.
“Tha’s nae curling,” some said. A few curlers of the day called for the twist to be outlawed as going against the spirit of the game. Curling, they said, wanted, and needed, straight shooters. Others reasoned that if the Fenwick curlers could make one stone curl around another and bury in behind a guard, then they could learn the same “illegal” manoeuvre for themselves, and beat the Fenwickians at their own game. And so the in-hand (in-turn) and out-hand (out¬turn) came into being.
According to some authorities, the curl in curling didn’t come to Canada until somewhere around 1840. Up until then the stone was delivered with a (mostly) straight handle.
But with all the changes that have taken place over the years, curling is still a game with the fewest of rules possible; it is still a game that depends on the players themselves to follow the rules, both written and unwritten.
How the curling delivery developed
In the early days of the Canadian game, when a curler delivered the stone from the hack, there might have been a step or two after release, but there was no slide. Years would go by before some curlers found their swing momentum resulted in an involuntary slide from the hack rather than a few short steps.
Some Canadians, in delivering the stone, might (wow) slide to the back of the rings. It wasn’t long before some of the better curlers could reach the tee line. Ken Watson, originator of the “long slide,” could glide comfortably to the front of the rings. And beyond.
Soon it was the slide that captured the fancy of newcomers. To produce a graceful slide, curlers took to many methods of improving their footwear. Liquid solder, seasoned leather, plastic milk carton sides – all were attempted. And to some degree, all worked. Then came Teflon, the red brick slider and as other, more improved materials surfaced, it soon became apparent that a curler could slide any distance he or she wanted.
Where did hog-line violations come from?
According to Scots curlers, the term [“hog-line”] is derived from Scottish agriculture. In a country where so many sheep were raised, a lamb in its first year of life was called “a hog.” In time, the name came to represent a straggler, a weakling, the one most likely to fall prey to predators, or to be culled from the flock. Similarly, a stone that could barely make it into the playing area was called a hog, and was therefore culled from the rest.
Introduction of time clocks
[Over time], new rules would be constructed to help improve the game. There was a move in 1989, dictated by necessity that saw time clocks introduced to curling. That was the year the ICF moved to integrate the Women’s World Championship with the Men’s, in Milwaukee. With this doubling of game activity, the worry for the organizers was that games could drag on to unmanageable lengths. The solution? Time clocks.
The original research on time clocks had started in 1983, and when The Sports Network (TSN) introduced time clocks to curling’s Skins Game in 1986, they proved a popular addition to the game, in that the clock mandated a specific length of time for each team’s game.
When the Milwaukee organizers, in 1989, became concerned about scheduling four or five draws a day, the time clock turned out to be the saving grace of the event. Time clocks have been present in top-level curling ever since.
Introduction of the Free Guard Zone (FGZ)
The “Free Guard Zone” rule arrived two years later, as a modification to a 1991 big-money competition, The Moncton 100. The event was designed as a celebration of Moncton’s civic centennial, and with $250,000 in prize money, it was the world’s richest cashspiel.
To give the event added allure, one of the competing teams, Ontario’s Russ Howard foursome, suggested a rule change similar to one of his team’s practice drills: neither side would be allowed to remove the first four stones of an end from play, whether in the rings or not. They could move the rocks around, but not remove them.
The rule, dubbed The Howard Rule, proved a popular addition to the Moncton event. A year later, when renamed the Free Guard Zone rule, and with one modification, it became a feature of the Winter Olympics of 1992. The Olympic modification restricted the Free Guard Zone to an area between the hog line and the tee line outside the rings. While subsequently Canada opted for a three-rock FGZ rule, the rest of the world thought a four-rock rule was preferable.
Birth of the Brier
The annual Manitoba Bonspiel became the dominant event of the sport, and one company, the W. C. Macdonald Tobacco Company of Montreal, became a major benefactor and catalyst of the game.
In 1924, George J. Cameron, an enthusiastic Winnipeg curler, dreamed aloud his idea of uniting the east and west of Canada through curling. Cameron was president of W. L. Mackenzie and Company, the western representative of the Macdonald Tobacco Company since 1880. Two of his friends, Walter Payne, known as Manitoba’s “thane of curling,” and John T. Haig, a past president of the Manitoba Curling Association, encouraged his thinking.
The Macdonald Company agreed to support the establishment of the Macdonald Brier trophy, as a key part of the 1925 Manitoba Bonspiel. In addition to receiving the honour of having their names engraved on a magnificent silver trophy (later rechristened the British Consols trophy) the winners would receive an all-expense trip to eastern Canada for a series of friendly games against eastern teams. In 1925, the winner was Howard Wood of Winnipeg, whose rink of Johnny Erzinger, Vic Wood (brother) and Lionel Wood (son) traveled east in the spring of 1925.
In 1926, the winners of the Macdonald Trophy event – the George Sherwood rink – were sent east to participate in the famed Quebec Bonspiel, where they won the Holt Renfrew Trophy. This second visit attracted greater attention, and subsequent conversations between Cameron and Thomas Rennie of Toronto (and others) led to the concept of a national event, with inaugural play to be held at the Granite Club in Toronto in 1927.
And so the Brier (a Macdonald Tobacco trademark name) as the national curling championship of Canada, was born.
Unlike many other sporting championships, in which the players are hived off in glossy, luxurious surroundings, far from the fans who support the event, the Brier puts curlers and fans together, usually in a gathering place known as the Brier Patch.
There had always been a meeting place at the Brier, but never one as elaborate as “the Patch.”
The first Brier Patch (under that name) was established by Don Pottinger’s Brandon committee, in 1982. It has been a feature of the Brier ever since.
A national curling championship for women
It wasn’t until the 1950s that women’s curling moved beyond provincial borders in an organized way. At the time, there was a Western Canada Women’s Championship, sponsored by the T. Eaton Company. In the east, there were individual provincial championships (Macdonald Tobacco, for example, sponsored a Quebec women’s event) but no all-eastern championship. There was talk in women’s curling circles about how wonderful it would be if they could have a championship of their own to emulate the Brier.
In February of 1960, the Canadian Ladies’ Curling Association (CLCA) was formed, with Hazel Watt as its first president. At the inaugural meeting, John Hull of Public Relations Services Limited (PRSL) was there to present a sponsorship plan on behalf of Dominion Stores Limited.
The following year saw the Diamond D turn to the Brier format of ten provincial teams seeking a national crown. The teams were assembled in Ottawa, and the event proved instantly popular. The 1961 title was won (as in 1960) by the Joyce McKee team, this time with a new front end of Barbara MacNevin and Rosa McFee to accompany Sylvia Fedoruk at third. McKee would go on to win a third crown, as skip, in 1969, and three more Canadian championships as second for Vera Pezer. Between them, McKee and Pezer helped establish and solidify the stature of the Canadian Women’s Championship.
In 1979 … Macdonald Tobacco, under increasingly heavy pressure from the Canadian government’s anti-tobacco thrust, reluctantly withdrew its support of both the Brier and the Lassie … and for the next two years, the CLCA operated its own championship.
In February of 1982, the first Scott Tournament of Hearts was held in Regina, with [former world champion curler and former Scott Paper employee, Robin] Wilson acting as coordinator. Today, the Scott Tournament of Hearts is Canada’s longest-running sponsored national event.
The combination of adroit promotion, skilled play, and full television coverage helped the [Scotties] Tournament of Hearts to become a vital component of the Canadian curling scene.
At one level there appears to be little in common between the curling that came to Canada in 1759 and today’s game. Then it was irons; now it is granites. Then it was outdoors on natural ice; now it is indoors on artificial ice. Luck played a major role, skill a lesser role in the final result then; skill is the major component of victory now, though luck is still a factor. It would appear to be two different games, then and now.
But look again and it’s obvious that the game that started in a small way in a new land bears a striking resemblance to the game that captivates so many Canadians today. It’s a game that beckons to Canadians of all ages and stages, in every province and territory. It was a slippery game then, and is so now. Laughter and camaraderie abound.