Columnist image
Bob Weeks

TSN Senior Reporter


When it comes to timing, curling was pretty fortunate as far as the pandemic is concerned. Just as COVID-19 struck in major waves in March, the curling season was drawing to a close and clubs were shuttering for the summer.

They dodged the demand and frustrations experienced by summer sports such as golf and tennis, whose players were champing at the bit to start playing.

Now clubs are looking ahead to the fall and preparing for recreational curling in the new normal. Whether curlers will come is still unknown, but managers and leaders seem optimistic that the sport can continue with a few adjustments, keeping rock-tossers on the ice in a safe manner.

“Curlers are very loyal,” said Danny Lamoureux, Curling Canada’s director of club development and event operations. “If the ice is in, they’ll be there.”

Curling Canada has been hard at work trying to develop guidelines that will make the game safe for its hundreds of thousands of participants. Not long after last season ended, Lamoureux put together a group of club managers from across the country to discuss just how the sport could operate safely. He sought out the best practices and ideas on a series of regular calls.

There was also a lot of input from other curling nations on how they were handling matters, including countries such as New Zealand, which was just heading into its new season and had to react quickly.

And, of course, health officials were also consulted to ensure the steps being taken were aligned with proper practices.

The result is a set of guidelines for clubs that will give them the best chance to organize the new season.

“The feedback from the group has been exceptional,” said Lamoureux. “Every time we think we’ve talked about every possible situation someone will come up with something else. And every club will have its own needs based on the facility and the government rules in place.”

The suggestions range from creating a traffic flow on the ice, to limiting sweeping to one player, to sanitizing stones after every game. There will also be no sweeping behind the tee line for fear of skips getting too close to each other. Curling Canada has gone so far as to suspend that particular rule from its rulebook.

All this information was put into a document titled Return-To-Play Guidelines, which Curling Canada is making available to every member club. There is also a number of resources on the organization’s website, such as posters illustrating how social distancing can be achieved on a sheet of ice.

With more than 1,000 curling facilities in Canada, the information is certainly welcome as they prepare for the new season.

“We are 100 per cent going to open in October,” said Jock Tyre, the manager of the Kelowna Curling Club, one of the country’s busiest clubs. “We’re going to make the best of it.”

Some 200 curlers play at Tyre’s club on most nights, making the biggest tasks the flow of traffic and avoidance of gatherings both on and off the ice.

One change will come with game times. Instead of having all matches start at the same time, they will be staggered by five or 10 minutes, allowing one sheet to take to the ice rather than all 12 at one time.

Games on neighbouring sheets will also begin at different ends – one at the home end the other at the away – as another way to keep curlers apart.

There will also be arrows put into the ice to create a directional path for every player, as well as indicators telling them where to stand during idle times.

Tyre is suggesting that skips wear masks although he’s unsure how many will. He’s also allowing teams to use two sweepers if they happen to be a couple or living in the same home.

“So far, sign-up has been a little slower than usual,” he admitted, “but some leagues are almost full.”

In Toronto, Leaside Curling Club’s manager Paivi Liitela, has been working on a return-to-the-ice plan since May, knowing that it would likely go through changes as matters evolved. She also reached out to the membership and surveyed how many were planning to come back and had 75 per cent say yes.

As with Kelowna, Leaside is one of the busiest clubs in Canada, and most years it has waiting lists to join leagues. It is also one of the few rental facilities in Canada’s largest city, and it’s not uncommon for Liitela to get phone calls from curious Americans visiting the city who want to give curling a try.

Although she’s prepared for a drop-off, she’s very optimistic that a new season will start on schedule as people look for some sort of winter activity.

“When it’s 15 below and the sidewalks are icy, you need something to do, to get out of the house,” Liitela said. “Curling is going to be there.”

The guidelines for the curlers at Leaside involve different entrance and exit doors and limited locker room use. Players will only be allowed to arrive 15 minutes before their start time. Sanitation stations will be on every sheet.

Still, Leaside is facing some issues. The club relies a great deal on revenue from its bar as well as rental leagues. Neither of those look to be on the upswing for the coming season.

The lounge area isn’t large enough to have all the players come off the ice for a beverage, which means a drop in alcohol sales.

When it comes to rentals, Liitela spoke of one group that traditionally holds four bonspiels a year with 32 teams in each one of those. They order upwards of 150 pitchers of beer. That’s gone and so too is the money they spend.

Leaside is also housed inside a facility owned by the City of Toronto, meaning it is subject to the rules put in place by municipal officials.

Presently, regulations prohibit doubles tennis on courts owned by the city and, as Liitela pointed out, a doubles tennis court is 2,800 square feet while a sheet of curling ice is only 2,100.

Rules in Newfoundland and Labrador are a little looser at the present time and that has Harold Walters, the general manager at the St. John’s Curling Club, feeling good about a restart.

Bars are open in Canada’s most easterly province and Walters is hoping that will apply to the bar at the club. Revenue from the alcohol sales represents about a fifth of the facilities revenue, but the socializing that goes along with that is vital to the curling experience.

“Curling is a social activity,” Walters stated. “I think half the players don’t really care about what happens on the ice. They just want to come off and have fun after.”

So far, the response from curlers in St. John’s has been strong, he stated, and Walters expects to open on time in early October. A curling camp organized by world and Olympic champion Brad Gushue that was supposed to run in late September has been cancelled.

At the York Curling Club in Newmarket, Ont., the club’s manager, Jack Inouye, remains positive that the coming season will go ahead.

Registrations at the present time are down about 12 per cent compared to last year but that’s to be expected, he said.

Inouye thinks that many curlers are waiting to see how matters progress in slowing the pandemic in general before committing to a return to the ice.

The plans for the club have been underway for some time, although they remain fluid. Government regulations will have an effect on how they are able to operate and what they are able to offer both on and off the ice.

Once that becomes clear, it will be about educating the curlers.

“We have to help them understand what their curling experience is going to look like,” he stated.

York Curling Club is financially strong and will be able to weather a season of limited or no play. That’s not the position of every club in Canada. Some face rising costs for electricity and upkeep on equipment and buildings, and need a buoyant membership to pay the bills.

Lamoureux is hopeful most curling clubs will be pebbling the ice this fall, although he understands there are plenty of concerns. Curling Canada is doing all it can to help every facility find a path to open.

“At the end of the day it will be a business decision, and everyone has to be prepared for a second wave,” he pointed out. “Don’t open for the sake of being open.

“But we think with the right systems in place, curling can be played safely.”