Record crowds come out for Hearts

ERIC BENDER -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 10:22 AM ET

The Scott Tournament of Hearts is off to a roaring start.

"I've never seen as big a crowd at an opening morning draw," said tournament co-ordinator Robin Wilson of Vancouver, who has been doing the job for the Hearts' entire 25-year history.

In fact, London host committee chairperson Peter Inch said the afternoon attendance of 4,700 during the day and 4,500 for the Saturday night draw were records. The event also drew the largest crowd ever for the opening ceremony and the largest numbers for the Hot Shots contest.

And that's in the face of Olympic TV coverage.

Wilson said several veteran curlers expressed "nerves" about performing in front of big crowds, something they are not used to during the early draws. "There's some jitters out there. The crowds are bigger now," she said.

Wilson was inducted into the Canadian Curling Association Hall of Fame on Friday as an athlete and a builder. She played on a team skipped by Lindsay Sparkes and won the women's national championship when it was called the Lassie in 1976 and 1979.

Sparkes was inducted Friday as a builder of the sport. She was previously in the hall as an athlete.

Wilson said all the curlers were able to make the tournament and she feels confident they will stay healthy all week.

"Fortunately, we are in a hotel where the windows open," she said. "When you are in a hotel with sealed windows somebody is always going down (with illness)."

This year's Hearts tournament is interesting because there's a greater mix of new teams and veterans than ever before, Wilson said. "We'll see nervousness and some blow-away games, but that will settle down.

"Colleen Jones is just amazing. It's her 20th national championship. How many other athletes can say they've been to 20 Canadian championships?"

Wilson said the ambience of the event in downtown London is ideal. "That outdoor rink (curling rings painted on the skating pad at Covent Market Garden) is busy with people," she said.

Atmosphere is part of the mandate of Inch as head of the host committee, overseeing five vice-chairpersons, 25 directors and 550 volunteers.

"We want to make sure everyone is happy -- the ticket buyers, the teams," Inch said. "We want to create that 'wow!' experience. We want them to say, 'Wow, London, I'd like to come back.' "

Inch's committee took charge of the John Labatt Centre on Feb. 19 and will be there until March 6.

The event attracted more volunteers than could be accommodated. "We want to guarantee them a minimum of 20 hours, so we didn't want to sign up too many in case they couldn't get 20 hours. Of course, some are working 200 hours."

Inch said sponsorship began slowly because sponsorship fatigue in the wake of the Memorial Cup.

"But as we got closer to the time (of the Hearts) they started coming on board," he said.

In the end, sponsorship reached 90 per cent of the committee's goal.


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