I first experienced death through curling. I was 12 and playing left wing for the St.Vital Victorias when our assistant coach, whose name was Mr.Michaels and who was a walking double for Peter Sellers in the Pink Panther movies, slipped on the ice one weekend while curling, hit his head, and died. Several of us went to the funeral to represent the team; not only was it my first funeral; it was also my first open casket. My most vivid memory of that day is that even in death, and without his bucket hat, Mr. Michaels still looked like Inspector Clouseau. I do also remember he was a nice guy, but I imagine at the time I didn't consider his passing much beyond the fact he wouldn't be coming to practice anymore.
The fact is I have never curled; I've never swept a broom, thrown a rock, or even come close to crossing a hog line. When I was a kid I thought a curling rink was a good waste of hockey ice, and for this, curlers were held in only slightly higher disregard than figure skaters. Although my favourite sport has long become horse racing - what with it's passive participation, mental exercise, and gambling - I played 'em all when I was younger. Hockey, of course, winter and summer. Baseball. Football. Volleyball. Track and Field. But never curling. It was a game for farmers and their farm wives, the equivalent of a bridge club for hicks, slow enough to provide lots of time to talk about crop rotation and whose daughter was getting married to whose no-good son.
So why is it that now, given the choice of basketball, NASCAR racing, XFL-brand football or skiing for my Sunday sports viewing, I instead choose to watch curling? That while fellow remote-control jocks are watching men risk life, limb and dignity, I'm dialled in to the soothing tones of Don Wittman on the CBC, live from Nowhere, Ontario?
Like most things I can't understand, I'll blame it on the Americans.
After we were married, my wife and I spent four years living in the Arizona desert. Down there we were curling free. In fact, in those pre-Winnipeg/Phoenix/Jets/Coyote days, we were completely free of any Canadian cultural references. And I think therein lies the rub; when I returned to Canada I plunged back into my roots, eager to catch up on what I missed. And though we may try to deny it, curling is one of the roots of Canadian sport.
The evidence is clear. Canada may claim to kick ass, and Canadian girls in particular may claim to kick ass, but when it comes to curling we really kick ass. We're simply the best, what all the other curling nations aspire to. One school of thought is that if you assembled the top 50 men's curling teams in the world, 45 of them would be from Canada. In curling hotbeds like Manitoba, it may some years be tougher to advance out of your local club than it would be to beat the other teams at the World Championships. As recently as 1994 Canadian teams held the world titles at the Men's, Women's, Junior Men's and Junior Women's levels. We ran the table. When curling became an official Olympic sport in 1998 we won the gold medal on the women's side, while the men, battling team illness and over-confidence after breezing undefeated through the round robin, settled for silver.
That women's team was led by Sandra Schmirler, and certainly hers was one of the most compelling stories in all of sports in the last couple of years. Schmirler the Curler, toothy grin intact, came out of the hamlet of Biggar, Saskatchewan, and won three Canadian titles and three world championships in the 1990's. By all accounts the quintessential girl-next-door, Schmirler was also the Michael Jordan of her sport, a fierce competitor who was able to make the big shots when they counted the most. The Olympic gold medal was her crowning achievement and the sight of her overcome with emotion and triumph on the winning shot was one of Canada's finest moments of those marijuana-hazed games. It appeared to all concerned the Schmirler rink would dominate the women's game for the next decade as well. But it was not to be. Shortly after her Olympic victory, and only months after delivering the child she had carried onto the ice, it was discovered that Schmirler had cancer. She never curled competitively again and died in March 2000 at the age of 36. In the days leading up to her funeral, hundreds of curling rinks across the country, as well as the Saskatchewan legislature, lowered their flags to half-mast.
Curling in the year 2001 is not my uncle's game. For one thing, while curlers of yesteryear often competed for not more than a couple hundred bucks prize money and an over-sized beer tankard, the top teams now can earn over $100,000 in a season, and travel around the world to compete. One of the very things people cite as curling's downfall, the slowness of the game, makes it perfect for television and television advertising. The predictability, that all the scoring will be decided on the last shot of each end, ensures that viewers can easily make a sandwich, crack a beer, and still not miss the action that matters most. Even the most rudimentary understanding of the rules is enough to grasp how the strategy is unfolding. Without all the running around and physical contact that occurs in other sports, curlers can be easily miked, so you are able to listen to the teams discuss what it is they're trying to accomplish. Curlers these days are in better shape, and the game itself has become more sophisticated. The most obvious change has been the disappearance of the corn broom. Traditionalists may miss the aesthetically pleasing THWACK of the old corn broom being slapped back and forth in front of the rock, but there's no doubt the push broom, with interchangeable brushes for different ice surfaces, does a better job of keeping the rock running in a straight line, resulting in far more accurate shooting. And while other sports such as baseball, basketball and hockey have struggled with ways to inject more offence in their game, curling has done it, by instituting a rule that you cannot "peel off" the first three rocks of any end, therefore putting more rocks in play and increasing the possibility of more scoring.
Like horse racing, curling has invented its own language. "Throwing the inturn." "Taking more ice." "Freezing to the guard" are all phrases unique to the grand old game. Tournaments are not tournaments; they're "bonspiels." And I mean, really, what's not to like about a sport that uses a piece of equipment called "the hack"? Next to "and down the stretch they come!" I don't think there's a better line in sports broadcasting than "Hackner takes a moment to wipe off his rock before settling into the hack." It's pure poetry.
Now comes word Paul Gross, the actor who gained fame under the premise that a Canadian Mountie would be running around Chicago in red serge dress uniform solving crime, is making a movie about curling. I don't know if Gross has chosen a female lead yet, but if I might be so bold I would like to suggest 2000 Canadian and World champion Kelley Law. On top of her stone-throwing prowess, Law also has the looks to become Canada's first babe of curling. Watch her hunched over the house, wiping back a stray wisp of blonde hair while deciding on a shot, or sliding down the ice, screaming "hurry girls, harder!" at the top of her lungs, and you just know that with the right marketing this woman could be Canada's next sports superstar.
Call me Johnny Canuck, but given the choice between Law's sexy overbite or the petulant pouting of the NBA badboys, I'll watch curling any Sunday afternoon.
Somewhere, I know Mr. Michaels is proud.