Curling returns to play in a pandemic by rediscovering its roots

So much about what makes curling special is community.

When curlers and fans talk about this quirky, roaring game one of the first things that enters the conversation is how social the sport is – how in communities across the land there are curling rinks which for decades have been the heartbeat and gathering spot for people.

So when the pandemic hit, many wondered how the game would return in Canada and what it would look like. It’s no secret in recent years local clubs have been suffering as administrations and volunteers try to find ways to bring people through the doors.

Curling, after all, has become so professional and so specialized that it’s gotten away from the grassroots the sport was built on.

Now, in the midst of the pandemic and as curling finds its way back to the pebbled sheets, it would appear the game is getting back to its roots, setting up events in local clubs — clubs that have always hosted events but are now the lifeline for casual curlers and the pros.

And the pros are returning to the place they first fell in love with the granite game.

Jennifer Jones, bottom, prepares a shot while Brent Laing, top, looks on at the KW Granite Club in Waterloo, Ont. (Devin Heroux/CBC Sports)

“It’s what makes curling special, our grassroots. So many people curl in Canada. There are rinks in so many communities so it’s nice to come back to the communities that make curling what it is today and thank the people,” Jennifer Jones told CBC Sports.

Jones would know. Her humble beginnings started in local clubs in Winnipeg – giving rise to one of the most prolific curlers to ever enter the hack.

This weekend, Jones is curling alongside her husband Brent Laing at the KW Granite club in Kitchener-Waterloo. It’s the first competitive bonspiel in Ontario – a mixed doubles event with 10 teams competing.

“I wasn’t sure if we were going to play this early, but KW is stepping up. I can’t imagine the work going on behind the scenes to make this happen,” Laing said.

Curlers are grateful to be back.

“The KW stepping up and allowing us to be on the ice, we really can’t thank them enough for taking the chance and putting these safety measures in place,” Jones said.

“This is the first event and it feels like a well-oiled machine.”

Brent Laing, left, and Jennifer Jones survey the ice at the event at the KW Granite Club in Waterloo, Ont. (Devin Heroux/CBC Sports)

While it may feel that way to the curlers, a committed group of staff and volunteers have been working n the background –around the clock – trying to prepare for not only this weekend but the next number of weekends.

The KW Granite is becoming somewhat of a curling hub throughout October. Four of the next five weeks will see key bonspiels hosted at the club. Getting to this point has been turbulent.

“It’s been a little stressful for me but not nearly as much as for the ice crew,” club president Matt Wilkinson said. “They’ve been out here for the last 10 days to get this running. Compressors were turned on 10 days ago.”

Wilkinson is responsible for making sure protocols are being followed, members are happy, and that above all, nobody gets COVID-19.

“It’s a new era. The amount of stuff and protocols to go through, understanding how we open the club and even if we were going to open the club, has been a lot to navigate,” he said.

Wilkinson says they’re at about 65 per cent capacity in terms of membership – usually their leagues are jammed and the building is humming. This weekend, it’s eerily quiet inside the club. No murmur of curlers discussing the game over beverages. Nothing. But the game is back and right now that’s a victory for Wilkinson.

John Epping surveys the house at the KW Granite Club in Waterloo, Ont. (Devin Heroux/CBC Sports)

“What this group has done is remarkable. To see curling ice in Ontario is a big step. We have a long way to go but I’m very proud of what we’ve done,” he said.

For as good as it’s feeling for curlers and fans to be celebrating the return of the game, Gerry Geurts understands this is just one small step in a long road back.

“I don’t know what curling is going to look like coming out of this,” the president of CurlingZone told CBC Sports.

“People want to play. Membership is still pretty strong. They want to see their friends again and socialize. It’s the same thing with these bonspiels.”

‘It’s starting to normalize’

What Geurts has done for curling is nothing short of remarkable. CurlingZone is a one-stop shop for everything a curling fan would want to know about the sport – from statistics to scores to player bios, it has it all.

But the money isn’t flowing like it used to with events being cancelled and sponsors pulling out of deals.

Still, Geurts is organizing events and providing free live-scoring for every bonspiel taking place just to keep the sport relevant.

“I love being involved and growing and building the game,” he said. “It’s starting to normalize a little bit. We have to get people out curling and get people comfortable being back on the ice again.”

And so that’s what’s happening. In the spirit of curling, like it’s always been. People rallying together to find ways to get back to the ice. It’s not a perfect science by any means and there will be bumps along the way.

But the silver lining is that there’s a community remembering why they fell in love with curling in the first place and it may just be exactly what the sport needed to save clubs across Canada.