Getting ready to rock

Head ice maker Dave Merklinger of New Westminster, B.C., with Lou Anne Pauhl of Hamilton, lays down...

Head ice maker Dave Merklinger of New Westminster, B.C., with Lou Anne Pauhl of Hamilton, lays down a layer of deionized water during a flood of a pad of curling ice at the John Labatt Centre in London. (London Free Press/Mike Hensen)

STEVE GREEN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 10:03 AM ET

Last year's Memorial Cup may have been the biggest sports event in London's history, but the Scott Tournament of Hearts isn't far behind.

The national women's curling championship, which opens tomorrow at the John Labatt Centre, may be rivalled only by the 1974 Brier at the old London Gardens, the 1981 world men's curling championship at Western's Thompson Arena and the 1993 du Maurier LPGA event at the Hunt Club.

Tourism London said it expects thousands of people to bring in from $6 million to $8 million to the city during the Hearts, and organizers hope a good number of them will do their partying in the HeartStop Lounge at the London Convention Centre.

It's the latest in a string of major athletic events London has staged, a list that includes the 2001 Canada Summer Games and last year's national figure skating championships and world transplant games.

It shows just how far the city has come in the 20 years since the Hearts was last here.

In 1986, the best the city had to offer for a national curling venue was Thompson arena, with its pullout bleachers on three sides. The Gardens-cum-Ice House was well past its best-before date by then.

In short, London's arena facilities were an embarrassment.

Now, though, there's the impressive new 9,000-seat JLC.

And whereas the Hearts averaged fewer than 2,000 spectators a draw in 1986, a lot more will see the action this time around, largely because the women's game has made equally big strides.

In 1986, a common attitude at the time was, "It's just women's curling." And the calibre of play occasionally reflected that. Glaring misses, unfortunately, weren't that rare as the women simply couldn't play the big weight as well as the men.

It took a brash young rink from St. Catharines, skipped by the irrepressible Marilyn Bodogh, to win Ontario's first title and really bring the spotlight to the women's game.

And that spotlight has seen the skill levels go through the roof since then, as Jennifer Jones's winning shot last year in St. John's epitomizes. The players keep getting better, younger and more telegenic, bringing a whole new audience to the game.

Jones is back to defend her title, this time as Team Canada.

"We're pumped," she said as her team piled into its van for an autograph session yesterday at a London Wal-Mart. "We're ready to play."

For the first time, the main social hub for the Hearts isn't adjacent to the playing site, but it's hoped a regular shuttle service will alleviate any concerns.

Starting about the sixth end of each draw and going till about an hour afterward, at least five buses will make continuous trips between the JLC and the convention centre. At least two will be in operation during off-peak hours, with more standing by if the need arises.

And while tonight's opening party at the convention centre, featuring country headliner Doc Walker is open to the public -- tickets are $15 and available at www.ticketmaster.ca -- from tomorrow on, you've got to have a ticket to the games to get in.

It will be worth the price of admission.


Videos

Photos