Cigarettes to granola bars: An evolution of curling

As I walked the few blocks in -20 degree weather to the MTS Centre I noticed quite a few people smoking outside. It made me nostalgic over a game once synonymous with vice and fun. It used to be you’d go into a curling rink to smoke. But inside the MTS Centre curlers were eating apples, energy bars, and sipping sports drinks.

Out of shape curlers? Not anymore. Year-round training, sports psychologists, team nutritionists; at this level, it’s a serious game. Men and women are wearing form-fitting, body-showing-off, skin-tight pants and tops, and rocking them. (I would not have liked to see any curlers in my rural club in the ‘70s wearing anything form-fitting.)This isn’t your dad’s curling game anymore.

When I curled there were ashtrays between the sheets for curlers to use because obviously – the sheet being 146’ – 73‘ was too long of a walk to go to either end. And, as an added advantage, the ashtrays were embedded into benches so we could sit while we ashed our smokes. (More than an occasional rock was burned by inadvertently gliding over fresh ashes.) Even if you weren’t a smoker, by the time you left the rink, you probably were.

I remember sharing a bench with a fat, smoking man coughing his brains out after sweeping for six seconds. Now that’s curling! Believe it or not, as recently as 1992, smoking was allowed on the ice surface in provincial playdowns. I can remember seeing former world champion Orest Meleschuk sliding out of the hack with a cigarette in his mouth.

Now add liquor. That’s right, in small towns all across Canada, curling rinks were a place to drink beer. Curling was what you did between swigs. Games revolved around beer. The pre-tournament Calcutta (where members bid on teams they thought would win) was paid out in beers. Score an 8-ender, you buy the other team a beer. Shake hands early, why? To drink more beer. Win your game in a bonspiel, win a case of beer. Russ Howard – who does the analysis for TSN’s TV coverage – was quoted as saying, “When I started, it was whichever team could sober up the fastest probably won.” On a personal note, I remember losing a game to a team whose skip was drunk and curled in Sorels.

Drinking and smoking, The two primary activities one partook in whilst curling. Here’s a history lesson.

The Canadian Championship – more commonly known as the Brier – was named after a brand of tobacco manufactured by its title sponsor: Macdonald Tobacco. Soon after, Labatt’s took over the main sponsor title for years and the appropriately named Labatt’s Brier. In fact the ubiquitous heart-shaped patches which are handed out to the champions were patterned after the small tin heart in the centre of MacDonald tobacco plugs. Talk about unhealthy sponsorship.

Now look at the sponsors.  Instead of a product like smokes – that will kill you – we have traveler’s insurance, a product designed to protect you from bad things.  And beer has been replaced by Tim Hortons coffee.

Fear not, though, because as I look into the crowd there is confirmation that the good old days are not quite gone. One still sees plenty of out-of-shape folks sipping beers and chowing down on nachos covered in liquid cheese as it dribbles onto their bellies. And Tim Hortons – to their credit – still serves things that are unhealthy.

You know that series of drawings where the caveman gradually stands upright until finally he becomes the human we recognize today? Imagine that ‘man’ starting with a beer in his hand and, as he starts to walk erect it morphs into a curling rock. That’s how I envision curling’s evolution.

Although thankfully in rural rinks everywhere, there are still plenty of non-erect, Precambrian creatures, who have resisted evolution.