Located at the head of the Great Lakes is the heart of curling in Northwestern Ontario: Thunder Bay.
Under the watchful eye of the Sleeping Giant, an island rock formation which appears to be a man sleeping, young curlers are developed in this curling stronghold. For the past 22 years, the Port Arthur Curling Club has been operating the Sticks and Stones, a very successful program for Little Rockers.
Terry Davis and Pat Gain have been involved since the beginning. “We’ve used four sets of granite rocks (two sets of inserts and two sets ground down) all this time,” notes Mr. Davis. “A few years ago, we replaced the goose-neck handles with plastic Curlex handles like the regular rocks.”
One outside ice sheet of the eight at Port Arthur is divided in two, with two extra regulation houses painted on it, making two short sheets. A special hack is positioned between the sheets in the middle, allowing for two games to be played in both directions. This is used by the very young curlers.
In the middle of the eight sheets is a large divider. Part of this divider has been cut away for storage of the granite little rocks, which keeps the rocks cold all season long. In the old days, volunteers would wait for the mixed curling league to finish on Friday night, so the rocks could then be set on the ice to cool enough to play with the next morning.
Terry estimates that over 1400 kids from the ages of 6 to 11 years have gone through the program. One year there were 131 registered. The large number of curlers is split in two groups based on experience. The Sticks and Stones season runs from October to January, culminating with an end-of-season banquet for everyone. The 11-year-old youngsters graduate to juniors, which play on Monday and Wednesday after school.
At the banquet, a special award is presented to the graduating curler who displays exemplary sportsmanship and dedication. This award honours a former participant, Shawn Duncan Wade, who lost his life in a tragic accident. Previous award winners include Nicole Westlund who now skips her women’s team in the Women’s Major League and competes each year at the Provincial Scotties, and Karlee Jones who is an OFSSA gold medalist and skipped the silver medal team at the 2011 Northern Ontario Junior Women’s Championship. Other notable graduates of the program include Brian Adams Jr. who represented Northern Ontario at three Canadian Championships and Dylan Johnston who skipped his 2009 Northern Ontario championship team to a silver medal at the Canadian Junior Championships.
Safety is very important and the use of helmets is mandatory. One time a young curler lost control, slipped and fell. The brush from his hand went flying up in the air. Before coming back to earth, the brush bonked another curler square on the head.
Leo Favreau, who now heads up the program, cannot speak more highly of relationship building within the group. His daughter, Angel, a teenage instructor now, has developed a special bond with a couple of the youngsters. Angel feels that if she did not show up, the kids would lose interest because their attachment is so strong to one another. Further to that, in the early 1990’s the Port Arthur Curling Club hosted the Provincial Women’s Championship. The youngsters were given an opportunity to meet some of the competitors, with strong memories remaining in meeting such “big name” curlers as Alison Goring and Marilyn Bodogh.
Halloween is a big event at the Sticks and Stones. Nearly all the kids dress up for the event. Super star Darth Vader made an appearance one year, along with numerous furry animals and fuzzy creatures. As well, the Family Spiel is a big a deal, with 16 family teams registering. This is the time when parents can really see the improvement in technical skills of their children.
In connection with the other curling clubs in the area – Fort William Curling Club, Kakabeka Falls Curling Club – a 16-team Boston Pizza League plays on Sunday afternoons. This introduces a bit of competitiveness to the kids, and helps to prepare them for the jump to juniors at the respective clubs.
Any amateur sport program needs its sponsors and supporters. This year the Sticks and Stones program lost its biggest supporter and sponsor when restauranteur Ling Lee died in an accident. Ling operated the food service at the club. The loss resonated not only through the Port Arthur Curling Club but the whole curling family and the Thunder Bay community. Anyone who has ever travelled to Thunder Bay to compete in a curling competition in the last 35 years would know of Ling Lee’s avid support for the sport of curling and tasted his gourmet food preparations. He will be long remembered as an icon of support for curling, especially with the youth.
So under the watchful eye of the Sleeping Giant, curling youth continue to be nurtured in the Thunder Bay area. The rest of Canada is advised to keep an eye as well.
If you know of a Little Rock curling program or a special Little Rocker that has a story to be told, I would be thrilled to hear from you. Contact me at email, [email protected].