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JOURNALISM: Canadian Curling [Download .doc version]


Curling, by Jeffrey Reed

Special to FOREVER YOUNG

Canadian sports heroes, modest yet possessing world-class skills, are a special breed. Icons like Masters golf champion Mike Weir of Bright’s Grove, Ontario, and hockey legend Wayne Gretzky of Brantford, Ontario relish their small-town roots while carrying themselves in a professional fashion.

Our homegrown heroes of curling are made of the same stuff. Honing their skills at community clubs in preparation for larger stages, like the Nokia Brier, and the Scott Tournament of Hearts – and today even the Winter Olympic Games – Canada’s elite curlers remain modest in their achievements.

The sport of curling itself has modest roots. Long before indoor ice facilities popularized the game, curling was played outdoors in frigid temperatures. A hand-written record of curling dates from 1540 in Scotland, a country which widely embraced the sport by the 18th century. In fact, the draining of an old pond in Dunblane, Scotland once turned up a curling stone dated 1511.

There are some historians who credit the Dutch and Germans with founding curling, but there’s no denying Canada its title as the world’s curling capital. From Victoria, British Columbia to St. John’s, Newfoundland there are 1,300 curling clubs and 1.2 million participants of all ages and abilities. If hockey is the fastest game on ice, then curling is the most beloved here at home.

In 2004 alone, more than 11 million adult Canadians will watch curling on television. No one acknowledges the magnitude of televised curling more than CBC-TV sports commentator, Don Wittman. Inducted into the Canadian Curling Hall of Fame (CCHF) in 2003, Wittman is a veteran of 42 years of television sports journalism. A resident of Winnipeg since 1961, the 67-year-old native of Herbert, Saskatchewan says Canadians and curling go hand in hand.

"I think a lot of people can relate to curlers, because they’re not earning megabucks as athletes, like the multi-million-dollar professionals in other sports," explains Wittman. "Many people in Canada curl. A (professional) curler is the guy or gal next door, who may be the provincial champion. I think they’re just ordinary people, and that’s something fans can relate to."

Curling In His Blood

Beginning his award-winning broadcasting career in 1955, Wittman has covered almost every major athletic event aired by CBC, including 16 Winter and Summer Olympic Games, several Stanley Cup contests, 35 Grey Cups, and numerous Canadian Open golf championships.

Since 1961, Wittman has covered championship curling. He recalls his first major curling assignment, the 1961 Brier – Canada’s men’s curling championship – hosted by Calgary. Wittman remembers, "It was the first national event I covered for CBC. They played 12 end games at that time. Hec Gervais (Alberta) wound up winning."

A television pioneer, Wittman played an instrumental role in the enhancement of curling broadcasts, and hence the game. At the Sudbury-hosted 1983 Brier, the CBC fitted skips Ed Lukowich of Alberta and Ed Werenich of Ontario with microphones. It was the first time in television history that the comments from curlers were being brought live into the living rooms of Canadians.

While this innovative move added to the intimacy of the game, and allowed curling fans to share in the excitement at ice level, it resulted in what was then a controversial moment for the CBC. Wittman says, "Werenich, when he got set to throw his final shot, said to the front end of Neil Harrison and John Kowaja, ‘I’m just going to throw this, and you guys sweep the piss out of it!’ At the time, we got some reaction from the viewers as to the language being used," remembers Wittman, "but that was very mild in comparison to what is used many times in a lot of shows today, on the news, and sports broadcasts."

"At the time, only the skips wore microphones, because the technology wasn’t advanced," explains Wittman. "Now, we have all members of a rink wearing microphones, and I think it’s one of the attractions for people watching on television."

Without a doubt, it is the personalities of curling which make the sport a game beloved by Canadians. Wittman says the curling establishment is "slowly but surely" marketing its stars on a large scale, in order to raise the profile of the sport. "The Scott Paper Company, for example, does a pretty good job of taking advantage of their reigning champions, and using them in advertisements," Wittman says of 2003 Scott Tournament of Hearts champion, Colleen Jones.

Heart Of A Champion

Elected to the CCHF in 1990, Jones is an ageless champion. At age 44, she remains at the top of her game. Representing the historic Mayflower Curling Club (established 1905) in her hometown of Halifax, Jones is the most successful women’s skip in Canadian curling history, with five Canadian Women’s Curling Championship titles (1982, 1999, 2001-03), and a World Championship title in 2001. Her Team Canada rink, including third Kim Kelly, second Mary-Anne Waye, lead Nancy Delahunt, fifth Laine Peters, and coach Ken Bagnell are all part of a curling dynasty. But don’t tell that to Jones, who, like all Canadian curling champions remains modest in the spotlight.

"My goodness, don’t give me that label. I’m not ready for that," said Jones, after winning the 2003 Scott Tournament of Hearts. However, Jones has spent most of her life dreaming of winning the national title.

A graduate of her hometown’s Dalhousie University, Jones joined CBC-TV in 1986, and moved to CBC Newsworld in 1995. An amiable, animated, attractive curling superstar, Jones is also comfortable in front of the camera while on the other side of the microphone. She has reported on Olympic and Commonwealth Games, and today enjoys delivering weather forecasts from beautiful locations around Nova Scotia, as well as offering viewers the latest sports highlights from around the world. She juggles her curling and television careers with a busy home life, which includes husband, Scott, and sons, Zach, 16, and Luke, 9.

As a child, Jones grew up with seven sisters. She remembers, "We had a Saturday morning junior program at the Mayflower club. When you turned 13, you went out the door with your sisters to the curling club. Right away, I wanted to be as good as them. I’d practice after school, and practice even more sliding on the kitchen floor in sock feet."

Jones spent endless hours practicing her sweeping with corn brooms, and with seven sisters it was never a problem finding competition. "Seven sisters, two curling teams," explains Jones. "There was always someone to curl with, and that motivated me."

If curling has a sex symbol, then Jones fits the bill, in a girl-next-door way. But, just as she shuns the dynasty handle, she laughs off her sexy image, captured on television. Her flowing hair, large smile, and gum chewing are just as much a part of her image as is her take-charge leadership and chant, "Hurry hard," which echoes in curling rinks around the globe.

In 2006, Turin, Italy will host the next Winter Olympics, and curling will once again receive a shot in the arm. Jones says, "I think the Olympics will do more for curling than anything else. I think it’s going to be the Olympics that will turn the tide for curling. The best thing curling can do is market itself as a lifetime sport, that you can play forever. It’s very sociable. And now that it’s an Olympic sport, it’s quickly becoming a ‘cool’ sport."

Wittman agrees, calling the Olympics "huge" for curling in Canada. "Now there’s something for the curlers to really shoot for: a chance to represent their country in Italy," he says.

In 1998, Sandra Schmirler became a household name, winning curling Gold for Canada at the Nagano, Japan Games. The Regina skip (CCHF 1999), who dominated women’s curling in the 1990s by winning three Canadian and World championships, died in March, 2000 at age 36 after battling cancer. Jones says she "always admired Sandra’s team, their character and class. They certainly brought curling to a whole new level. Her team were always heroes to our team, and one we’ve tried to emulate."

More than a million Canadians are filling rinks across the country this curling season. In places like St. Thomas, Ontario and Benito, Manitoba, young curlers – the future of the sport – are emulating their hero, Colleen Jones. Even if they don’t reach the success level of Canada’s most successful women’s curler, they’re playing a sport that they’ll enjoy the rest of their lives.

 

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