Curlers get 'rock star' treatment

TERRY JONES, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:11 AM ET

RAMA, Ont - It's about as far removed as you could possibly comprehend from that first curling match between two monks at Paisley Abbey near in Scotland back in 1541.

When David Murdoch came here last year to the casino at the home of the Chippewas First Nation, the curler from down the road in Lockerbie, Scotland, was simply stupefied.

"It's a curling dream, really. I came here last year and just thought 'wow!' This is not real.

"You are treated so well, you think you're a rock star," added the rock star of the granite variety.

"I couldn't believe when I entered the grand showroom where we play. They had us come down through the stands slapping hands with the fans. That was so great," said Murdoch.

"It was incredible, really. It's like taking curling to a whole new level. It was stunning. The crowd was so close that they could hear the rocks. I kept thinking 'This is too enjoyable.' And then they gave me a bunch of cash," said the first international ever invited to the party.

"The set-up is perfect," said Olympic gold-medal winner Kevin Martin who some suggest considers this event his own personal ATM machine, having withdrawn a record $355,850 so far over the years.

"The amphitheater seats about 3,500 and they put people on the stage, too. To have the ice between the theatre seats on the stage puts a lot of people right on top of you. And the atmosphere ... hey, it's a casino. It's all about fun!"

Murdoch is the defending champion. He took $70,500 of the $100,000 away from here last year, beating both Martin and Randy Ferbey of Edmonton.

The marquee match-up which makes this year's edition maybe the most special of them all is the Saturday night game between Martin and Cheryl Bernard -- the two curlers who both played before television audiences of seven million Canadians in their gold-medal games at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics.

While a Bernard win over Martin would provide mega ratings for the Sunday afternoon final, a much more likely final featuring Olympic champion Martin and world and Brier champion Kevin Koe, both out of the Edmonton Saville Centre, would work, too. Koe and Murdoch play the Saturday afternoon semifinal.

Both Bernard and Koe are new to all of this.

"I think it's going to be fun," said Calgary's Bernard. "It's an exciting new experience coming off the greatest experience of our lives. To me, that's what it's all about, another great thing happening to us which we want to enjoy to the fullest."

Martin says the real star of the show is Hans Wuthrich.

"He has to make ice on a cement floor between theatre seats and a stage. It's not easy."

"It's easier now than that first year," says Wuthrich, who in an extremely complex and complicated way involving plastic sheeting and Styrofoam creates the same sand curling floor with refrigeration pipes as a one-sheeter in any number of small farm communities around the nation.

"It's unique," he said. "But it's also the most comfortable ice-making assignment of the year. I don't freeze my butt off at this one."

The casino setting, it turns out, was meant to be.

Five years ago the TSN Skins Game, which began with McCain's title sponsorship the year the network went on the air, was dead.

The first one featured $16,000 in prize money. It was held in curling clubs from Whitehorse to Charlottetown and even Wuthrich's hometown of Gimli, Manitoba.

"It began with a brain-storming session with TSN about what kind of event we could bring to our entertainment centre," said Jeff Craik, director of marketing for CasinoRama.

"Somebody came up with the crazy idea of building an ice surface inside a Canadian casino for the first time and resurrecting the curling skins game which had gone quiet a few years after the last one in Bathurst, N.B."

It's been win-win for everybody, bringing great promotion for the casino and the room where people like Faith Hill and KISS normally play.

"They've made it into a great event," said Randy Paul, director of TSN Events of bringing it back to life four years ago to go on to make it now 22 years of the 27 TSN has been on the air, pointing out last year's final between Murdoch and Randy Ferbey peaked at 808,000 viewers with a weekend average matching 'NHL on TSN' numbers. With Bernard-Martin, Paul is expecting the event to blow away all previous numbers this year.

Casino curling.

"It just doesn't do it justice until you come in and actually see it," said Paul.

Follow me on Twitter.com/sunterryjones


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