TORONTO - Is curling ready for the dreaded “R” word?
Relegation is a dreaded term in soccer-crazed countries like England, where the bottom-feeders at the end of the premier league footy season drop into a lower-tier league for the following year.
The concept has become reality at the Canadian Mixed Curling Championship, which wraps up Nov. 19 at the Sudbury Curling Club. Fourteen teams now do battle with the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut each receiving their own entries, and Northern Ontario — as usual — making up the second Ontario team.
The bottom four will be relegated into a four-team double-knockout next year, whereupon two of those squads will win their way back into a 12-team Mixed field for 2013.
The Canadian Curling Association is using the mixed and seniors as pilot projects to see if the relegation system can be adopted at the biggest events of all: The men’s Brier and women’s Tournament of Hearts.
While the three Territories are no doubt thrilled to be recognized with their own teams, they’ll have a big struggle ahead of them to stay out of the relegation zone. As of lunchtime on Tuesday, Yukon and Nunavut were 0-6 with the NWT at 2-4.
19 IN TOTAL
The Mixed has officially kicked off the CCA’s event calendar, which will see 12 championships take place in five provinces through April 1, 2012.
British Columbia and Ontario will both host four events. Saskatchewan, however, has landed the biggest of the all when the Brier hits Saskatoon in early March.
Five of the six additional world championships will take place outside of Canada, except for the world women’s which is scheduled for Lethbridge, Alta.
A new, seventh world event is the Youth Olympic Winter Games, taking place at Innsbruck, Austria in January.
TIME MARCHES ON
Time seems to stop and freeze at your friendly neighbourhood curling facility, and on first glance the Sudbury Curling Club is no exception.
It seems fitting that this facility sits atop a small mountain, or “moon rock” as the occasional tourist has been known to believe. Pickup trucks are littered about the gravel parking lot. The cash register at the bar is battered and turning yellow with age. Curling manager Tim Phillips is stuffed into a corner of his office, reading off a computer screen that just might be powered by MS-DOS.
But not all in here boasts the scent of history. A bottle of beer now costs $4.50, which just might be more expensive than the local legion (although a Brick Brewing special during the Mixed costs just $3.50). The fairly new wheelchair elevator is another nod to modern times.
“We got a Trillium grant and built it in 2005,” said Phillips. “It cost $70,000. Now the wheelchair curlers can enjoy a drink after the game in the lounge like everybody else.
“We also had to retrofit the washrooms to make them wheelchair-accessible.”
Sudbury’s wheelchair team competes weekly in the Thursday night men’s league against able-bodied curlers. The squad appeared at the 2011 Northern Ontario wheelchair curling provincial, losing the final.
Monday night curling action at the Mixed was interrupted by an eruption of cheers in the lounge. Competitors, who heard the explosion through the viewing glass, turned around in surprise.
The reason was a loud hometown cheer for Sudbury women’s hockey star Tessa Bonhomme, who won Olympic gold at Vancouver 2010. The curling fans had turned their attention to the big-screen TV in time to watch Bonhomme and partner David Pelletier win TV’s Battle of the Blades competition, and with that a prize donation to charity.
Bonhomme will donate her $50,000 share of the winner’s prize to a Sudbury breast cancer fundraiser.
RING MY BELL
The CCA landed a long-elusive sponsorship on Tuesday when Bell signed on as official telecommunications partner.
The association’s last telco partner was Unitel/AT&T which sponsored the Canadian Mixed from 1995 through 1998.
REST IN PEACE
The shocking death of New Brunswick skip Jim Sullivan at age 43 has rocked the curling world.
Sullivan’s team defeated Ontario’s Wayne Middaugh to win the 1987 Canadian Juniors and one year later took his Saint John foursome to gold at the world juniors. Two years after that, he skipped New Brunswick all the way to the Brier final before losing to Ontario legend Ed “The Wrench” Werenich.
Sullivan’s suicide is the third such incident involving high-profile curling competitors in recent years.
During the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games, French curler Solene Coulot took her own life at age 20. In December 2010, Scottish wheelchair curling champion Frank Duffy ended his in a horrific car fire.
This doesn’t mean that curling is facing a scenario similar to that of NHL hockey. Curling athletes are not paid professionals, and when it comes to physical contact the two ice sports could not be more different.
But what Sullivan and others shared with many people, including some NHL hockey players, was the dark world of depression. It can strike when we least expect it, as witnessed by the sadness that is quietly drifting through the curling world. And the fact that curlers of even the highest ability are real people, with careers and families and pressures and fears, should make us think long and hard about the insidious nature of this disease.