Having an Inch means miles when it comes to curling

STEVE GREEN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 7:06 AM ET

When it comes to staging national curling events around here, there's at least one way to ensure success.

Give it to Inch and he'll take it a mile.

Peter Inch led the group that put on the very well-run 2002 Canadian senior championships in St. Thomas, but now he's in a much bigger league as head of the host committee for the Scott Tournament of Hearts.

The Canadian women's curling championship returns to London on Feb. 25 after a 20-year absence and Inch, like everyone else associated with the event, is counting the minutes until that first rock is thrown.

"I would say nervousness," he said of what he's feeling most these days. "There's no more, 'We've still got a couple of months to work on it.' But I can't wait for it to get here."

Second in annual national scope only to the Brier, the Hearts has truly blossomed into a top-calibre event over the last two decades. It's a daunting task, but one Inch was eager to take on.

So why is the general manager of Roy Inch & Sons Service Experts at the helm?

"I wasn't afraid to ask for it. When we did the seniors, on the Thursday before the final weekend Warren (Hansen of the Canadian Curling Association) came into town, took a look around and said to me, 'Things seem to be going pretty well.' That says a lot if he's that confident, so on the Friday I said I'd like to host a big one.

"I like a challenge. If something's running smoothly, I want to see if I can make it run even smoother. I'm not afraid of change, even in my business. I'm always looking to do something differently. It would be easy to say, 'That's what they did (last year) in St. John's, let's just copy that.' It's easy to take the easy way out.

"Bringing an event like this back to London is a huge undertaking, but if we do it right, we can bring one back every two or three years."

Although his is the public face of the Hearts, Inch said his five vice-chairs -- Lorie Hill (hosting), Kerry Lackie (HeartStop Lounge), Sandra Kleinstiver (business), Ted Smith (facilities) and Ann Lapchinski (special events and volunteers) -- along with event co-ordinator Gord McNabb -- deserve as much credit, if not more.

"When I took this on, it was not a case of just phoning people up."

"We put them through an interview process to see if they had what it takes and whether they have the commitment," Inch said. "Plus I thought it was a good idea to have someone from each of the four host clubs (London, Highland, St. Thomas and Ilderton) fairly high up.

"I'm working 30-40 hours a week on this and they may be doing even more."

And that's not to say there hasn't been the occasional butting of heads.

"I have to look at the event as a whole and while they're all passionate about their areas, sometimes their vision doesn't fit with the bigger picture. But then you have that 24-hour cooling-out period and everyone gets back on the same page."

As Hearts draws nearer, Inch said he's seeing and hearing more of a buzz about the community.

"My letter carrier, who's been coming in for five or six years but who's never said anything, came in the other week and said, 'Good luck with the Hearts.' That said to me that this is finally happening.

"My biggest concern was marketing and getting sponsors. This city had staged so many big events recently, like the national figure skating championships, the Memorial Cup and world transplant games, we were afraid the fatigue factor would kick in. We saw it early, but now that everyone's rested, we're seeing things picking up."

People in the seats is the most visible gauge of an event and a top-calibre field like the one coming to London doesn't hurt.

"I think they broke the glass door last year," Inch said. "When Jennifer Jones made that shot in the final, I think that's when a lot of people realized these women can play this game.

"And you have to have characters to sell the sport and these women have a lot of character."

Couple that with a great arena like the John Labatt Centre and Inch is confident the all-time attendance mark of 154,688, set in Regina in 1998, can be challenged.

"I didn't have to try to sell the facilities. They basically sold themselves," he said, adding ticket sales are on target -- 85 per cent of the revenue goal and more than half of total seating capacity of roughly 170,000 tickets. Single-game tickets go on sale Friday -- $15 for round-robin games and playoffs, $20 for the semifinal and $25 for the final.

"We're very happy with where we are. We'll (sell out) the lower bowl," Inch said. "I've always wanted to break the record. I've never doubted we'd get it, my only doubt was whether we'd need three tiebreakers to get it."

If the record is broken, Inch promised to shave his head -- "on the ice before the closing ceremonies" -- but there's a much more serious reason he wants the mark.

"We want to show the CCA that the support is here, that we deserve another shot for something like an Olympic trials or a Brier."

Some say the idea of another London Brier is farfetched, given the CCA's penchant for big arenas out west.

"If you get in their face and don't go away, they have to listen to you," Inch says "People say we'll never get a Brier and I say, 'Watch us.' "

While he's happy with the way ticket sales are going, Inch said an even bigger joy has been the volunteers.

"We've got about 562 volunteers and at the rally the other day, we had about 520 show up, coming from all over the province. And it was great to look at their faces and see how excited they are. Sometimes you get tired doing this, but the volunteers re-energize you.

"I'll be sad when the end comes. That'll be the unhappiest day or my life, seeing my 562 new friends disperse."

Somewhere in his schedule, Inch found time to get married last October to Carol Taylor. She and her daughters -- Shae, 17, Siena, 16, and Tanys, 14 -- moved into a new home in August with Inch and his kids -- Brandon, 16, and Jessica, 14.

"I'll put it to you this way: I warned her," Inch said about his Hearts commitment. "Originally, we were going to get married after the Hearts, but we found a great house.

"Carol's been fantastic. She's been there through good and bad. There are times when I doubted myself -- 'Can I really do this?' -- and she was always there to give me a pat on the back and tell me, 'Of course you can.' "

And Carol is pitching in -- she'll be a volunteer in the HeartStop Lounge.

Asked for his idea of what would constitute a successful Hearts, Inch paused briefly.

"Selling 158,000 tickets would mean a financial success that would allow us to give money back to the clubs; that the city be represented well and the fans leave with a smile on their face."

TICKET INFORMATION

Where: Available by calling 1-866-488-1012, on the Internet at www.johnlabattcentre.com or in person at the JLC box office. All tickets are good for admission to HeartStop Lounge at the convention centre and a free shuttle there from the arena. Prices do not include service charges.

Packages

Full event: $325 (lower bowl ends), $300 (lower bowl sides and upper bowl ends) and $275 (upper bowl sides). Some still available.

Mini-packs: Hearts Starter (Ford Host Shots competition plus five draws Feb. 25-26), $60; Early Riser (morning and afternoon draws Feb. 27-March 1), $80; Late Show (evening draws Feb. 27-March 1); Champions Weekend (final three round-robin draws March 2 plus all playoff games), $120. Some still available.

Single day: Feb. 25-March 1, $30. Some still available.

Single game: Go on sale Friday; $15 for round-robin games, tiebreakers and playoffs; $20 for semifinal; $25 for final.


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