RED DEER, Alta. - How did this happen? How did the city which played host to the much-maligned “Redneck Brier” of 1994 become the go-to town for the Scotties Tournament of Hearts?
And how, exactly did women’s curling end up this big, with television numbers rivaling those of the men?
“It has become the No. 1 women’s sports event in Canada,” said Warren Hansen, events manager of the Canadian Curling Association.
“There is nothing else in Canadian women’s sport which can compare, with 60 hours of live television with really good numbers and the profile the event and the curlers have developed over the years.”
It’s happened. And Red Deer becoming the crown jewel location for the jewelry set of sports is a happening.
Red Deer has turned into a place where women curlers come to get their biggest hugs — and they’ve been getting a lot of them lately.
The Scotties opened here Saturday with a near-capacity crowd in the 6,700-seat building where Ryan Nugent-Hopkins spent the previous two years, after a ballistic evening to open it the night before.
“The pre-tournament night we had here Friday night blew my socks off,” said Hansen of Red Deer taking an approach tried for the first time last year at the Scotties in Charlottetown.
“Red Deer took it to a whole new level,” he said of the concept of bringing all the curlers to the HeartStop (think Brier Patch) to be introduced to the crowd and be part of a welcoming ceremony way beyond the basic band-and-booze night.
“It was bulging at the seams,” he said of the giant party room for 2,500. “We had 300 people lined up outside.”
The template will now be used for the Brier this year in Saskatoon and next year in Edmonton.
Red Deer, says Hansen, had a pre-sale which suggests it will follow through during the week.
“It’s a good city with a good arena, a strong economy and a good curling history,” said Hansen.
But it’s the scene around town, where store windows are decorated in curling themes in a “Show Us Your Hearts” promotion, and especially in the building, which has the curlers raving.
“I love it,” said Heather Nodohin, the Alberta skip who lost to Kevin Koe’s sister Kerry Galusha of the Territories for openers Saturday.
Nedohin, who hasn’t been to the event since 2000, has been a regular at the men’s show a lot watching her four-time Brier champion husband Dave after four straight trips to the Scotties as a third and a skip.
“This has been awesome in every direction so far, from the banquet to the opening ceremonies to the crowds and the atmosphere they’ve created here.”
Nedohin goes back.
“My first Scotties was 1997 in Vancouver and the crowds just didn’t come,” said Nodohin of the piddly 38,598 which showed up over nine days on the left coast.
The attendance of 112,886 in Red Deer in 2004 was second in the 31-year history of the event under Scott Paper and Kruger sponsorship. And there’s every indication this is going to be even bigger and better.
“Only one was bigger, and that one was a one-off in Regina in 1998,” said Hansen.
“That was the biggest dance of all, because Sandra Schmirler and her team had just won the gold medal at the 1998 Nagano Olympics and came straight off the plane to play in their home-town event.”
Nedohin was at that one, too.
Indeed, she won it that year, playing for Cathy King.
“That was electric. When they came walking in, it was just an incredible scene. There was a huge sign saying ‘Thanks for bringing in the gold.’ What a moment that was,” she said.
That Scotties drew 154,688.
It was the only one which has ever been bigger than the one they had here in 2004, and the one they look like they’re going to have again this year.
It’s not that the Scotties is coming close to achieving gate equality with the Brier. It can’t play the big buildings. And it has trouble drawing big crowds in most locations.
Hansen isn’t going to con anybody that the Scotties has attendance numbers which come close to matching the Brier as the TV numbers — which in the last few years average only a couple hundred thousand fewer than the Brier, and occasional round-robin draws have managed to top the boys for a draw here and there.
“This event really only succeeds very well in Red Deer, Regina and Brandon,” said Hansen.
Last year there were only 52,404 in Charlottetown for the nine days of competition. But the TV numbers were competitive with the men.
Kevin Martin’s gold-medal win at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games were over seven million with Cheryl Bernard winning silver before six million.
The draws, which bring CFL-sized numbers on TSN for both the Brier and Scotties, don’t have the same comparisons when it comes to bums in the seats.
When the Brier is producing attendance totals like the record 281,985 in Edmonton, the numbers here don’t compete.
But because the Brier evolved into a big-building sport, using Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Saskatoon in a main rotation with occasional visits to Halifax and the odd Ontario centre, the Scotties have moved up to replace what the Brier used to be across Canada.
In the past 25 years, the Scotties have been held in every province in the country except Quebec and there are plans to head there soon.
Once upon a time the Brier played places like Charlottetown, Kingston, Fort William, Kitchener-Waterloo, Brandon, Hull, Kelowna, Oshawa, St. John’s, Saint John, Victoria, Fredericton, Sudbury, Moncton, Chicoutimi, Sault Ste. Marie, Kamloops and, in 1994, Red Deer.
Now those are the sort of places the Scotties goes.
Twice they’ve been held in Charlottetown, including last year. And both times Kim Dolan has been head of the organizing committee. Saturday she was back being skip of Prince Edward Island.
It’s the eighth Scotties for the 53-year-old who went to her first way back in 1983 in Prince George, B.C., when the attendance was 17,402.
“It’s amazing where it has all come since then,” she said.
“The event has really evolved. There were such small crowds and not much profile. The growth has been incredible. The Olympics changed everything. And TSN.
“Yet it is an event which is accessible to a community like ours with a smaller venue.”
But no one has witnessed it — indeed been an integral part of it — more than Robin Wilson, the executive director of the event for 29 of her 31 years of involvement since playing in it before Scott Paper took over as sponsor.
“I curled for Lindsay Sparkes,” she said of the B.C. skip when they won it in 1976 and 1979.
“I played in it the first year when Scott took over as sponsor in 1982 in Regina. There were 250 people in the stands watching and I knew most of them by name,” she said of the 12,896 who attended for the entire week, about the number which will be at each draw in Saskatoon for the Brier in a couple of weeks.
“I really credit the sponsor for the development,” she said.
“It started with dressing the gals different and projecting very feminine images. These are good looking gals.
“It even includes putting up jewelry as prizes,” she said of the four-heart necklace the girls get when they play in their first one and the diamond they get for each return trip. After five they get a tennis bracelet and more diamonds for each time they make it to the Scotties. Plus the rings they receive for winning it involve a diamond for each subsequent win. Take a look at Jennifer Jones’s ring. It’s huge. Diamonds are a girls best friend.
“It’s been very classy since Day 1.
“And, I think, having a Team Canada, last year’s champion coming back. That’s now something they are finally looking at for the Brier. That was driven by the sponsor.
“So much of it involved packaging and branding.
“Then, of course, TSN and then the Olympics.”
There’s one other thing, she said.
“The women’s game has improved a lot, too.”
Put it all together and put it in Red Deer and you’ve got something special.