My mission to understand why Alberta has become so prominent in one our country’s favourite sports begins in high July, on a glorious 32-degree Celsius day with neither cloud nor breeze. Summertime just doesn’t get any sweeter.
Yep, it’s a great day for curling.
At Edmonton’s Saville Sports Centre (SSC) on the University of Alberta’s South Campus, it’s almost always a great day for curling. Home to rock stars like current Canadian champion Kevin Martin and fourtime world titleist Randy Ferbey, the SSC has 10 state-of-the-art ice sheets in place for the longest season of any curling club in the world – July to April.
It’s Canada’s busiest club, too. By autumn, nearly 2,000 members will participate in weekly play here, from introductory “funspiels,” to the elite men’s Big Rock Edmonton Super League, the hyper-competitive Wednesday night crucible containing the greatest concentration of curling talent on the planet. Super League is also a major reason why teams that call the SSC home have dominated six of the decade’s nine Brier championships (wherein Canadian curling supremacy has been determined since 1927). Thus I have braved the QE2 Highway from Calgary to Edmonton – not to mention donning Polarfleece on one of the hottest days of the year – specifically to see what makes Alberta curlers so hot. And I’m rapidly discovering that it’s like everything else in human life: a robust combination of genes and environment.
Today marks the opening of the first of many week-long summer curling camps for kids. Twenty of them are sprinkled across three sheets, coached by current members of the University of Alberta men’s and women’s teams. Now, ordinarily, you’d expect children confined to the ice while their friends are splashing at the lake to be a tad distracted. Not these guys. They are shockingly attentive. I am especially fascinated by the Little Rocks, as they’re called – the beginner’s division in which kids as young as seven, wearing hockey helmets for safety, throw miniature rocks roughly half the regulation 20-kilogram granite. After a few preliminary drills, like balancing on one foot and pushing rocks back and forth to one another across the width of the sheet, coach Karrick Martin – the son of famous skip, Kevin – lines the kids up for some fulllength throws.
“Step into the hack,” commands Martin, “and show me an in-turn.” With no hesitation, one tot after another hops onto the rubber foothold and delivers the requested counter-clockwise spin, demonstrating a rapid absorption of both curling technique and jargon. It’s not long before their shots are sailing all the way to the rings, though no further. A mere two hours into their first day and they’re already curling – well.
One of these young hotshots, with an especially stylish slide to her delivery and a name badge that says “Gabby,” turns to the man watching from the sidelines. “Are you a professional curler?” she asks.
“No,” I reply, noticing that her broom and pants bear a top curling brand logo. “But I guess you must be.”
“My parents are,” Gabby states matter-of-factly. “My dad curls with the Ferbey from generations of ice time and my mom plays second with Cathy King.”
Gabby, therefore, is Gabby Rocque. Not only does she have the greatest curling name ever, she’s genuine curling royalty – the daughter of Marcel “Shot” Rocque (a play on the term for the stone nearest the centre ring) and his wife, Raylene. Both parents will soon compete on their respective teams to represent Canada at the Vancouver Olympics in February. As for Gabby herself – and this may be slightly premature – I like her chances in 2026.
Next month, from December 6 to 13, Canada’s best curlers will convene in Edmonton’s Rexall Place for the Roar of the Rings, a pressure-packed week in which eight top teams of each gender will battle it out for the right to wear the maple leaf in Vancouver 2010. (Curling teams, known as “rinks,” consist of four players – lead, second, third and skip, though they are usually referred to by the skip’s name alone.) Based on previous three-season-long play, the first four qualifying spots have already been determined, while the final four will earn their berths this month. Alberta, it should surprise nobody to learn, is already heavily represented among the pre-qualified. That includes the Calgary-based rinks of Shannon Kleibrink and reigning provincial champion Cheryl Bernard, while among the men it’s Kevin Martin, Randy Ferbey and their Saville clubmate, Kevin Koe.
It’s difficult to explain why, in recent years, the province’s best female curlers have hailed from Calgary, whereas northern Alberta, and Edmonton in particular, have dominated the men’s game. What’s easier to understand is how, on the national scene and especially on the men’s side, Alberta appears to be overtaking the powerhouse role long claimed by Manitoba. In the Brier’s first two decades, for example, Manitoba won 11 times. But thanks to Alberta’s recent run, the province is rapidly closing the historical gap, with 49 top-three finishes compared to Manitoba’s 52. Chalk it up to curling’s abiding characteristics of rural roots and family tradition, with a little demographic shift thrown in. The sport, as we know it, began on the frozen lochs of Scotland, an outgrowth of informal competitions to see who could slide ordinary river stones closest to a distant target. Scots immigrants brought the pastime to ice-rich Canada in the 1800s, where it took root just as its rules of play and dimensions were being formalized. Prairie settlers took to the sport early, often on outdoor rinks with a wall of straw bales as a windbreak. Then came indoor ice; both Calgary and Edmonton had curling clubs around 1888, shortly after the arrival of the railroads. By mid-20th century, few prairie towns lacked a long, low building housing a few precious sheets. Forget hockey; for adults, at least, curling provided the one reliable social outlet during the long, cold winters.
Flash-forward a few decades, however, and curling now mirrors the population in general in its inexorable shift from rural to urban areas. Throw in Alberta’s strong economy and it’s no wonder the province’s cities have become magnets to talented curlers looking for both a good job and top-flight competition. Three out of four players on Kleibrink’s Calgary rink, for example, are originally from Saskatchewan.
The other factor Alberta has in spades is the family curling connection. Randy Ferbey would probably never have played the game had his father not taken him to Edmonton’s Thistle Curling Club as a boy of 10. Most top curlers tell a similar story. And then there’s the importance of growing up amid not just lifelong curlers but actual world champions. Dave Nedohin (whose uncanny skill at throwing last rocks for the Ferbey Four has made him a four-time Brier MVP) carries distant memories of sitting on the knee of Don Duguid, the legendary Winnipeg skip.
According to Gerry Peckham, high performance director for the Canadian Curling Association, this is very much a sport where success breeds success. “Quality play evolves in places where quality play already exists,” he points out. “It goes back decades with players like Hec Gervais, Ron Northcott and Ed Lukowich” – all multiple Brier-winning skips from Alberta whose reigns spanned the 1960s to the 1980s. Randy Ferbey, who at 50 will be among the oldest Olympians if he makes it to Vancouver, played a full season with Gervais as a youngster, further proof that skills in this game are passed hand-to-hand.
So it’s no accident that the Canadian Curling Association’s two national training centres are located in Alberta: at the Calgary Winter Club and Edmonton’s Saville Sports Centre. Olympic legacy funding has endowed curling in Calgary, while multiple factors have contributed to the latter’s emergence as a 21st-century curling mecca, and surely a model for others to come.
The Saville Sports Centre has some things in common with other curling clubs. It enjoys a rural setting, sort of. Though surrounded by city, it’s located near the barns connected with the U of A’s agricultural studies. There’s also a typical snack bar and a lounge overlooking the ice sheets.
Beyond that, all similarities end. Opened in 2004, the SSC is a $7-million, 120,000-square-foot, multi-sport facility (though it focuses on curling and tennis). It is named for its principal benefactor, well-known Edmonton entrepreneur and sportsman Bruce Saville, who happens to be the partner of skip Cathy King. Blessed with a gymnasium, spacious locker rooms and an ultra-modern fitness centre, it more resembles a country club than curling’s drafty Quonset huts of yore.
And like a country club golf course, its professional staff manages the 20-plus leagues that play here. It even boasts its own pro shop, Kevin’s Rocks-N-Racquets (Kevin Martin, proprietor) where a top-end carbon shafted curling broom (or brush, as the cornstraw-free contemporary device is known) sells for $179.99.
Martin, by the way, is likely the topearning curling professional of all time, and a reminder of how far the sport has come since winning a bonspiel got you little more than a Texas mickey or a bag of steaks. Martin-skipped teams have raided the highend cashspiel circuit, now formalized as the Asham World Curling Tour, for a lifetime total in the $2-million range. It’s a measure of the sport’s blue-collar roots, however, that even the leading lights have day jobs. Along with his pro shop, Martin co-owns a north Edmonton M&M Meats store with his talented young second, St. Albert’s Marc Kennedy.
Needless to say, M&M is a significant sponsor of both Martin and the sport in general. Sponsorships of all kinds have become key to curling success, what with the increasingly far-flung travel required to compete at the top level. The Martin and Ferbey rinks have thus made logo-festooned athletic wear as common as hand-knit cardigans once were on the pebbled ice.
But as rich as the Saville Sports Centre is in talent, training and opportunity, you can only expect it to get richer. I can tell that by seeing the other curlers sharing the ice with the Little Rocks in the middle of summer. Jill Officer and Dawn Askin, members of Jennifer Jones’s Canadian champion rink, have flown in from their home in Winnipeg to the national training centre for a pre-season tune-up, since they, too, are prequalified for the Roar of the Rings. Like elite athletes in other sports, top curlers receive Sport Canada funding for just this sort of advanced learning. Stretching off-ice before her session, Officer explains what it takes to reach and stay at the game’s pinnacle. “In-season it’s a minimum of 40 hours a week,” she says. “If we’re not on the ice, we’re in the gym working on cardio, strength and core stability.” Needless to say, the ashtrays and drink holders that were once standard-issue rink accessories are now ancient history. Fitness as a prerequisite for top curling dates to 1987, when paunchy skip Ed Werenich was told by the Canadian Curling Association that if he qualified for curling’s debut as a demonstration sport at the 1988 Calgary Olympics, he would have to lose weight.
But for more than just aesthetic reasons, modern curlers like Officer are genuinely ripped athletes. They require arm strength for efficient sweeping, not to mention effortless flexibility for the long, low delivery of the 100-or-so rocks players throw in practice. Meanwhile, at rinkside, teammate Askin is studying her own technique on a huge computer screen alongside Rob Krepps, an expert instructor whose job is split between curling director at the SSC and national team coach. It’s his dream job. “If this were golf, it would be like being the pro at Pebble Beach,” he explains. As for this fancy electronic gear, it’s been provided in part by a grant from Canada’s Own the Podium 2010 initiative. “This is a state-of-the-art motion-capture system, a one-of-a-kind video array that allows us to immediately analyze an athlete’s delivery from multiple perspectives.” Throw in contributions from the U of A’s sport scientists, says Krepps, and “there are some really unique synergies at the SSC.”
No kidding. Video. Core training. Synergies. It’s easy to see how far curling has come since the 52-year stretch, ending in 1979, when Macdonald Tobacco was the title sponsor of the Brier. Rest assured, the Saville is a non-smoking facility.
It used to be said in men’s curling circles that it was every bit as hard to get beyond the northern Alberta playdowns as it was to win the Brier. That has changed, though, according to Al Cameron, curling writer for the Calgary Herald. “They changed the qualification process for provincial playdowns. Now guys like Martin, Ferbey and Koe prequalify in other ways, so there’s actually a chance for other Edmonton teams to make it to provincials.”
Still, says Cameron, it’s going to be a long time before an upset winner emerges from Alberta to challenge the rest of Canada and the world beyond – if ever. Curling superiority, he notes, “is not an instant thing. First, you need skill. Then you’ve got to find a flexible employer. You also need an understanding family, and then you’ve got to round up three other teammates who have the same kind of motivation. That’s a pretty rare thing.” Referring to the Martin and Ferbey rinks, he adds, “These guys are seriously committed. They practice harder than anybody. They play in the big events more than anybody. And they have sponsors who allow them to do it. That all makes for a tough combination to beat.”
But try they will next month at the Roar of the Rings. The Olympics, it’s safe to say, eclipses – at least, quadrennially – Canadian curling’s usual pinnacles of achievement: the Brier or its female equivalent, the Scotties Tournament of Hearts, followed by annual world championships. Every one of those 16 rinks will gladly forego both competitions this year if it means a chance at Olympic gold.
Among the men, Alberta’s Titans will have to ward off the current number-one rated rink in Canada, the one skipped by Ontario’s Glenn Howard, who has appeared in an astonishing 11 Briers. Newfoundland’s Brad Gushue would love to reprise his gold-winning performance from 2006 in Torino. And Martin, should he prevail, will be out to avenge his loss in the final game at the Worlds last year to Scotland’s David Murdoch rink.
Among the women, Shannon Kleibrink will have to outduel both Cheryl Bernard and Jennifer Jones if she hopes to defeat the reigning world-champion Chinese and improve on her own bronze finish in Torino. Meanwhile, not surprisingly, given that it’s at the centre of the curling universe, organizers are expecting the sort of sellout you’d usually see only for an Oilers playoff game. As the Canadian Curling Association’s Gerry Peckham enthuses, this thing is going to be huge. “We had the Brier in Calgary last year,” he notes, “and I’ll tell you, Alberta curling fans are exceptional.”
But Peckham says we ain’t seen nothing yet. “If you want to bear witness to the curling spectacle of all time, then attend these Olympic trials. I guarantee it will be the biggest event our sport has achieved on this planet.” True, these aren’t just any Olympics. They’re our Olympics. And the path to reach them goes, quite fittingly, through curling’s latest stronghold. For the millions who will watch this event on television, many of whom have never picked up a broom, this may come as news. For the Gabby Rocques of the world, however, it’s all in the natural order of things. i Checking out bonspiels beyond your home town?