Chris Simpson

Semper letteris mandate


When it’s winter in Canada thoughts naturally turn to hockey. But in the prairies this passion is closely rivalled by the sport of curling.


“There was a little girl who had a little curl” – right in the middle of the “house.”

It’s bonspiel time again, there’s a lot of hurrying going on and it’s often pretty hard.

Although the origins are a bit vague, the game is believed to have started in Scotland, with the name coming from a combination of the Gaelic words “bonn,” meaning “coin” or “cornerstone,” and “speil,” meaning skate.

In any event, at some point in the distant past someone slid a rock across the ice and a new pastime was born.

The term “curling,” of course, comes from the efforts of players to “curl” the path of the stone so that it collides against those of an opponent knocking it out of the “house” – or series of rings at the other end of the ice.

While originating in Scotland, the largest competition is now held in Canada. The “Brier,” sanctioned by the Canadian Curling Association has been held here since 1927, when it was sponsored by Macdonald Tobacco. The name, Brier, was a brand of tobacco made for pipes. Macdonald also introduced the heart-shaped patches given to tournament winners as well as the British Consols Trophy, named after a brand of cigarettes. This was later changed to the now-familiar Brier Tankard Trophy.

When public opinion (and law) turned against tobacco sponsorship of events, Labbatt took over in 1980 with Nokia taking over in 2001. In 2005 Tim Horton’s became the Brier sponsor, probably one of the best corporate fits imaginable.

When looked at objectively, the game consists of sliding 40 pound chunks of granite down the ice with the intention of placing them as close to the centre of a painted target as possible while knocking opponents’ rocks away. What, exactly, is the motivation for such an activity?

“Well, there’s the competitiveness,” says Donna Wilhelm. “And the sociability. That’s how you meet people in your area, is through the curling. Because everybody used to — not now — but everyone used to curl and that’s how you met people. And it was a club also, so you did it for the club.”

Wilhelm is a past champion of curling in the region.

“We represented Swift Current at the time and we won the Saskatchewan provincials. Then we went to the finals in Whitehorse. That was the Swift Current Curling Club.”

Plenty of ice in Whitehorse, for sure. But what was it like?

“In Whitehorse we played against all the different provinces. It was fun. Very entertaining, challenging, competitive. It was just a real good experience. If you can get that far it’s really great.”

Her husband, Ron, also curled.

“Ron curled in Webb and we also curled in the mixed curling in Gull Lake. We took in all the bonspiels from Gull Lake to Swift Current to Simmie. And it was for fun.”

The refrain, “it was for fun” is common among curlers.

The only thing many people know about curling is the phrase “hurry hard,” which the skip (the captain of the team) may yell out to encourage the sweepers to sweep harder.

Sweeping has to do with the unique surface of curling ice, which is of a slightly pebbled nature. Originally sweeping was done simply to clear the outdoor ice patch of debris. Once the sport moved to regular rinks, however, it was discovered that the sweeping action helps melt the very top surface of the pebbled ice, helping the rock to slide more smoothly over it. More recently a new style of sweeping, known as corner sweeping became popular. In this method the sweeper sweeps along the slow side of the path, thereby helping the rock run straighter.

Curling terminology is replete with arcane and imaginative terms. “Hurry hard” broke out of the confines of curling rinks when Canadian two-time world champion Russ Howard kept shouting it in his distinctly gravelly voice.

Less well-known terms, at least to the general public, include “lazy handle” (when the stone’s rotation is too slow), “swingy ice” (when ice causes the stones to curl more than usual) and “Burn” (when a stone in play is accidentally touched).

According to Gull Lake Memories, the first curling rink in Gull Lake was established either in 1921 or 1922, but was suspended around 1937 when the building was taken over by Pioneer Grain for storage. Curling returned to the centre portion of the building for the 1946-47 season and in 1950. When a new curling rink was constructed in 1966, the old one was dismantled.

In the book From Prairie Trails to Pavement, Hazel Adolph Diepen recalls the time before the Gull Lake rink was built.

“I loved to skate on the open-air ice rink in town where there was also a covered area for curling, a game enjoyed by the older generation.”

Regardless of which generation is curling, and these days it’s not just for older generations, there’s no question that curling is still alive and well in Gull Lake and surrounding areas. And as Donna Wilhelm says, it’s a good way to socialize, meet new people, and have some fun on the ice.

The bonspiel season is upon us, and it’s well worth while to take in one of the numerous games being held in the region.

Just don’t burn any rocks.

Originally published in The Gull Lake Advance, Feb. 12, 2013

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Ian Rankin

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Maeve Binchy

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