March 11, 2010
Curling crisis in TorontoMany don't have a sheet to play on
By GEORGE KARRYS, QMI Agency
Eddie Werenich drove fast -- too fast -- down Highway 404 and on to the Don Valley Parkway.
The two-time world champion curling skip, a blue-collar Hall-of-Famer known for saying precisely what is on his mind, had a lot on his mind.
"The Wrench" was on his way to his beloved Avonlea Curling Club -- just east of the Lawrence exit -- and he was in a hurry. It was July 26, 2006 and word had broken that his home rink had been sold to a developer.
Sixteen sheets of prime curling real estate -- the best curling ice in the city, according to many -- were about to close forever.
The calls went out for members to retrieve their belongings. Werenich was en route to pick up his 1983 and 1990 Brier and World Championship banners -- curling's equivalent of the Stanley Cup banners which hang from arena rafters -- when a friend called to warn him.
The Ontario Curling Association was on its way to Avonlea, with intentions of claiming the banners.
"Like hell they will," the Wrench recalled, growling.
"There were rumours about the club (closing) for years before that and nobody did anything. Now Toronto's biggest club is gone and they want the banners?
"I said, 'I'm gonna come get them and you let me and the OCA decide who gets to keep them.'
"I've never heard from the OCA."
Toronto has an incredibly rich curling legacy, dating to the 19th century.
A flurry of activity began in the middle of the century, with the first outdoor "Grand Match" featuring East vs. West hosted by the city in 1858.
The next year, a curling bonspiel (tournament) was hosted on Toronto Bay, and, in 1860, the Toronto Curling Club built the first covered rink in Ontario.
By 1875, the Toronto Granite Club was formed, with Sir John A. Macdonald listed as a member.
As curling began to grow across Canada, the creation of the Brier, the Canadian men's curling championship, threw a new spotlight on Toronto, and the Granite.
By 1927, the event had become a national championship with eight teams participating: one from the west (Yellow Grass, Sask.) and the rest from provincial and city champions, the latter representing Montreal and Toronto.
Brier championships would steadily grow in size and stature for the next 12 years, all of them hosted by Toronto's Granite Club until 1940, when the event was moved to Winnipeg.
While the Brier has roamed the country ever since, garnering millions of dollars from sponsorships, gate receipts and television contracts, it never returned to Toronto. One Canadian Curling Association official was quoted about his organization's fear of returning to a city where one of Canada's greatest recreational pastimes gets lost in the urban shuffle.
Toronto Curling Association president Beth Woolnough had a headache.
The annual city mixed bonspiel featuring 72 teams needs a title sponsor -- at $15,000 -- or it will fold.
Of course, the event used to boast more than 200 teams, in the good old days.
Only five of her 23 clubs are using the frenzy of Olympic curling excitement, and free promotion, to host special clinics or open-house events.
"Some of them say they have no room for new members," said Woolnough, shaking her head.
She's also looking at the cost of a new GTA curling facility: $7 million.
"That's a tall order for us, when we're all volunteers," said Woolnough.
"One of the hardest things is finding new volunteers, new people who will help take responsibility for Toronto curling.
"But we do need to be more proactive. I believe the time has come for TCA to partner with the private sector. We have more than 15,000 curlers but we should have at least 30,000."
According to former Werenich teammate Paul Savage, Toronto curlers need to do much more than volunteer to help salvage the city's curling oomph.
"Curlers are cheap," Savage declared. "And that goes for all curlers."
It's always been a problem.
"I was at the Tankard watching this flipping team from Ottawa. Three of the players had old hair brushes, with the paint worn off.
"These same guys probably have $2,000 worth of the latest golf equipment in their garage. But they won't spend a dime on curling."
The closure of Avonlea, which opened in 1961, was another major setback for the sport in Toronto.
It marked the seventh dedicated curling facility in the GTA to fold over the past 25 years. More than 1,500 curlers, both "regulars" and rental league players, called the Avonlea home. While many joined other clubs, others quit the sport entirely.
Two years later, in November 2008, the City of Toronto released a report on the sorry state of curling, suggesting the closure of 70 sheets of ice has amounted to the loss of 8,750 participants from the sport.
A committee motion was passed for the city to suggest that curling be included in the proposed Civitan Arena project, in which developers would build a new twin pad ice arena within two kilometres of Avonlea's former location.
Efforts to follow up with Toronto Parks, Forestry and Recreation proved fruitless. One of the report's major contributors has since retired, and his replacement did not return calls from the Toronto Sun.
One staffer, attempting to be helpful, suggested that "Nothing appears to have been done with this."
"City council's collective stupidity, the inability to manage our money, is costing us very dearly. We should be properly funding these things... (Curling) is part of our fabric."
The speaker is city councillor Cliff Jenkins, and he is a curler.
After learning the sport as a youth in Hamilton, Jenkins has spent the past 20 years curling twice a week in the GTA.
"I was pleased to help push for that report, but the city has no money for these capital-intensive projects," said Jenkins.
"The city is basically hoping someone from the private sector will come along, with a bunch of money, and the city can provide logistical support."
Savage is bullish on corporate curling outings as a new growth participation model.
"If you can host a company, really market the opportunity aggressively to the corporate sector, you can build on that and become hugely successful," said Savage.
"All the clubs need to do is market it, provide great food and amenities and quality instruction. The truth is, there's a bunch of lazy people managing curling clubs.
"They're not aggressive. There's no sophisticated marketing needed, and it doesn't cost a lot of money, it's not even a hell of a lot more than making phone calls."
Savage's son Brad has competed in the past three Ontario Men's Tankard provincials.
"I have a friend who used to jab me all the time about curling, although he secretly liked it," said the younger Savage.
"He works for Honda and they wanted a 'different' team building exercise, and he eventually asked if I would arrange curling for them.
Soon they were renting ice, and now they run a weekly six-team league with another day reserved for practice ice.
"It's become a really big deal. These executives from Japan, you need to understand that they work until eight or nine o'clock every night.
"Except on Thursdays, when they're unreachable. Because they're curling."
Chad McMullan is on a roll. His non-ice, gym-floor version of elementary school curling has grown from a brief GTA test run into a national program in less than two years.
Capital One Rocks & Rings emphasizes fun, and very little curling detail, for kids aged 12 and under who are often -- in the case of Toronto -- new, urban, visible minority Canadians who never have seen the sport before.
"This is the nut Toronto curling has to crack," McMullan said.
"There are Sikhs in Brampton and Mississauga who are crazy about basketball, who are starting to play recreational hockey. Why isn't Toronto's great melting pot out there curling?"
McMullan's program, which has been featured on CBC's The National, aims to plant the curling seed at an early age.
"Some kids can start right now," said McMullan.
"Little Rock curling is for ages six through 12, and it's been around forever. The rocks are half the size but no one outside of curling even knows these leagues exist.
Werenich remembered speaking to Avonlea's owner soon after he sold the club.
"He said he wasn't actually trying to sell it, somebody came through the door and offered him a ridiculous amount of money, more than he wanted. And he had no choice. You can't blame him for that."
The Wrench is still crushed by the loss.
"God, I loved that place. I curled there, I spent almost every day there. I raised my kids there. I played Pong there, when it first came out.
"It's a damned shame."
OLYMPIAN GEORGE KARRYS CAN BE REACHED AT CURLINGURU.COM