Not so crowded house

Kenn Oliver
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Provincial curling association seeing decline in competitive curlers, increase in recreational curling

Since Brad Gushue vaulted on to the international curling scene with his 2001 world junior championship and again following his 2006 Olympic gold medal, membership in curling clubs across the province has increased.

However, those new curlers have largely been of the recreational type, "the armchair curlers who wanted to come down and try it out," explains Newfoundland and Labrador Curling Association president Bob Osborne.

Since Brad Gushue vaulted on to the international curling scene with his 2001 world junior championship and again following his 2006 Olympic gold medal, membership in curling clubs across the province has increased.

However, those new curlers have largely been of the recreational type, "the armchair curlers who wanted to come down and try it out," explains Newfoundland and Labrador Curling Association president Bob Osborne.

Few have made the move to the competitive game that would see them possibly vie for a provincial title.

"For someone to take that step, it takes an awful lot of time, dedication and money to get there," Osborne says.

"Brad Gushue and his guys have to raise tens of thousands of dollars in sponsorship just to do what they're doing and have employers who are willing to let them tour for nine and ten weeks a year."

The seemingly dearth of competitive curlers is evident in this year's provincial championships. The Scotties provincial women's championship attracted just six teams, all from within the St. John's region. And this week's men's Labatt Tankard at the Bally Haly Golf and Curling club has nine teams, only two of which are from outside the capital city. Both of those are Labrador teams.

Normally competitions take place in each of the four zones - Eastern, Central, Western and Northern - with two rinks advancing from each to the provincials. There is also a second-chance Open tournament which grants entry for another two teams into the provincials.

Zones did not take place this year, and neither did the Open.

A decline in competitive curlers is being seen not just in Newfoundland, but across Canada, according to Osborne. In Manitoba and Alberta, provincial championships this year attracted fewer teams in both men's and women's play.

In light of that trend, a new event called the Dominion Curling Club Championship emerged last year and appeals specifically to the amateur club curler, those who don't curl at a Super League or provincial level and who don't have the time and resources to compete with the curling elite.

Like the Brier and Scotties, club teams play down to produce a provincial champ from each of the 10 provinces and three territories who then compete at a national championship.

Osborne expects it will be bigger than the Brier and Scotties in years to come.

"They'll look at the provincials and say, 'I haven't got the energy to win a provincial at the level Gushue and the others are playing at. But I can win a provincial at this level playing against my buddies in the Monday night beer league.'

"When I go to Ottawa for Canadian Curling Association meetings, everyone there is talking about the Dominion."

Another reason for fewer and fewer competitive curlers comes back to individual clubs' inability to retain membership, specifically junior curlers who have come up through their system.

"We'll develop them from five up to 18- or 19-years-old, and then they'll get to university, both here and abroad. They lose interest for a few years and then we start seeing them come back. But by then, they start having families and by that time they're asking themselves, 'Do I really have that much time to put into competitive curling or do I want to spend one or two night a a week in a social league?'," Osborne explains.

It's that much harder for clubs outside of St. John's to keep their juniors.

"A lot of the juniors who used to curl at home have gone to university or working elsewhere now," says Keith Ryan, skip of the Labrador City Carol Curling Club rink competing at this week's Labatt Tankard. "Any of our core people we bring up through the juniors usually end up leaving, both male and female."

The lack of curlers isn't the game's only problem. Many curling clubs around the province are in difficult positions.

The curling club in Harbour Grace has long since shut down and rinks in Gander and Grand Falls-Windsor are hanging on by a thread this season. And for the first time in nearly 20 years, there is no curling in Corner Brook (the old rink, now under ownership of Sir Wilfred Grenfell College, is being replaced by a new facility in a deal struck with the membership of the Blomidon Golf and Country Club).

A few years ago, Osborne says the St. John's Curling Club was, "hours away from shutting down" due to financial difficulties. But through the CCA's Business of Curling program, a three-step process aimed at helping clubs survive in the marketplace, it made some changes - most notably selling the naming rights to become the Re/Max Centre - and now finds itself, "doing fairly well.

"There were some staffing issues we had to take care, so we had to cut back a little on staffing and rely a little more on volunteers. We put our icemakers through some courses which were offered and that helped, too," Osborne says.

"At the end of the day, minor things like that make a big difference whether the doors are open or closed."

Revenue at curling clubs is largely based on membership fees, but in rural clubs where membership is continually declining, Osborne says operating on a pay as you go basis is a good option.

Osborne recognizes more rural clubs, like those in Labrador City or Stephenville, rely heavily on their membership and volunteers in the day-to-day operation of the facilities. But given the time involved, few new members are willing or able to make the same commitment.

"It takes an enormous amount of time and people just don't have the time anymore, it's unfortunate.

"The membership base has shrunk a bit, leaving more work falling on the shoulders of fewer people."

Osborne, while admitting fewer competitive curlers is not an ideal situation, isn't overly concerned about the livelihood of the sport across the province. Clubs in Stephenville, Labrador City, Happy Valley-Goose Bay "are doing well membership-wise" and the possibility exists for the club in Springdale to reopen next fall.

koliver@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Sir Wilfred Grenfell College, Labatt Tankard, Labrador City Carol Curling Club Newfoundland and Labrador Curling Association Dominion Bally Haly Golf Super League Ottawa for Canadian Curling Association Blomidon Golf and Country Club Max Centre

Geographic location: St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada Manitoba Alberta Stephenville Gander Corner Brook Happy Valley Goose Bay Springdale

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