Curling buzz is waning

CON GRIWKOWSKY, QMI AGENCY

, Last Updated: 10:19 AM ET

Where have all the competitive curlers gone?

There was a time, not so long ago, when dozens of teams were vying for a chance to play in the Brier and the Scotties.

This year, "dozen" is more like it.

There was a time when the city men's playdowns was a big deal, complete with a media conference to hype the event.

Close to 100 teams taking a shot. Curling rinks packed to the rafters with spectators.

This year, 12 teams entered for six zones.

Gotta like those one-in-two chances.

Even friends and relatives stayed away at a mostly-empty spectator area at Glen Allan arena in Sherwood Park.

Today, only the men's and senior men's still have zone playdowns in northern Alberta.

In southern Alberta, the number of competitive teams has dropped off so much that there's direct entry to the men's southern playdowns.

Same story for the women, north and south.

Even though there was a direct entry to the women's northerns at the Avonair Club this year, the event attracted just 11 teams for what used to be a 16-team event.

Something has changed -- and there's no shortage of theories.

There's an acceptance that curling is a game in transition.

Long gone are the days when club curlers like Tom Reed and Ken Hunka could skip their teams to an Alberta championship.

Greg Ferster? Not a hope.

Yet, those three skips won Alberta titles in the 1990s.

Gone are the days when four buddies got together and figured they had a shot.

Now, teams like Randy Ferbey, Kevin Martin and Kevin Koe have taken the game to a different level.

Until those teams were given exemptions to the provincials, there was at least a chance for teams to play the best.

Having three of the best teams in the world is like a double-edge sword. It's great, but it can be a deterrent.

"If you look at curling and look at the Big Three in this province, they tend to take a lot of the curling in this city," said James Pahl, who still enjoys the thrill of the playdowns.

"Those guys are as close to professional as you can get. The other teams figure they have no chance to win. Curling is so good here, it scares away too many people. It's only going to get worse."

Of the dozen teams entered in this men's playdowns, three are in warming up for the senior mens.

It's only a matter of time before there's a direct entry to the men's northerns.

Yet, curling at the recreational level continues to grow.

Sherwood Park Curling Club manager Dan Girardi has 984 registered players at his club.

That's second only to the nearly 2,000 registered at the Saville Sports Centre, the largest curling membership list in the world.

"This is the best year the Saville Centre has had from a membership perspective," said facility manager Rob Krepps.

"All our regular member leagues are up, and it's just incredibly popular at the recreational level.

"We're really happy about that.

"We're working hard to keep that going and looking forward to continuing that in the future."

The Canadian Curling Association may have an answer for how elite curling is choking off the grassroots.

They've launched the Dominion Club Curling Championship, an event strictly for club teams that held its first Canadian championship last month in Toronto.

"It's a good thing, trying to get it back to the club level," said Pahl.

There may yet be some life in the grassroots.

CON.GRIWKOWSKY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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