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New Zealand men's curling team gets assist from Calgary retirement home

Anton Hood Anton Hood - Curling Canada

When Team New Zealand tosses its first rock at the men’s world curling championship in Schaffhausen, Switzerland in March, their former housemates in Calgary – a group of more than a dozen senior citizens at the Chartwell Colonel Belcher Retirement Residence – will be raucously cheering them on. 

The four New Zealanders came to Calgary in 2022 to train together ahead of the 2022 Pan Continental Curling Championships and enjoyed the experience, but the cost of staying at long-term Airbnbs was significant.

The team wanted to return a year later but needed to cut costs. They spoke to Kim Forge, an Airdrie, Alta., native who heads the Australian Curling Federation. Forge put out an announcement on Facebook looking for accommodation, which caught the eye of Cassandra Murray, a high-level curler who works for the retirement home, where the average age is over 75. 

In September, the Kiwis moved in with the seniors.

“It's been incredible,” said skip Anton Hood, 23, who, like his teammates, works full-time in Calgary in addition to training. Hood is an assistant ice technician. “Everyone here has just been amazing, really friendly, really inviting…the experience as a whole has just been way more than what we could ever imagine.”

“We bump into people all the time in the hallways and have some really good chats,” said vice-skip Brett Sargon, 30. “We've gone for breakfast with them and happy hour on a Friday afternoon.”

The seniors have enjoyed the energy and camaraderie the New Zealanders have brought to the home. Genuine friendships have been made.

“Couldn't be any better,” said resident Bertha Esplen, 97. “It makes us feel nice and young again…I used to be a curler and a curled for many years, so we’ve got lots in common, talking about curling and everything else. And I'm interested in their homeland and I'm sure they're interested in mine. So, we carry on conversations like that and enjoy each other immensely.”

“It really boosts the morale here,” said William Dench, another resident. “Every time the guys come down for breakfast, they always have a lineup of people coming up and wishing them the best.”

Murray has noticed the effect the team has had on the seniors. They take the bus to watch the team practice and when the team competes abroad the matches are shown in the residence’s living room.

“It's something that they're really thankful to be a part of,” Murray said. “They were away for a bit at the Pan Continentals, and we all sat in the theatre and watched their game together and streamed it…they come to happy hours and try to interact with the residents when they're not practising.”

Hood grew up in Naseby, a New Zealand town of less than 200 that has one of the only dedicated curling rinks in the southern hemisphere. 

“It was either curl or be bored,” he said. “Curling was just one of the things that we got into, and [I] really loved it and just fell in love with the game.”

Sargon comes from Auckland, the country’s capital. 

“I started curling in high school,” he said. “I started to just fall in love with the game and continued with it, and here I am.”

Beyond the curling sheets, the group has also had several Canadian experiences. 

“We did get a rude awakening to the Caesar [cocktail] here in Alberta and Calgary,” Sargon said, laughing. “We actually thought Anton and I thought we were gonna be drinking a couple of cold beers on a warm afternoon, and they turned out to be Caesars at the last second.”

They also had an encounter with wildlife. 

“We managed to hit a deer on Queen Elizabeth Highway,” Hood said. “[It]  jumped out at us going full speed on the highway and we managed to write the car off. So, that was an interesting Albertan experience.”

The New Zealanders’ time with the seniors is coming to an end, as they move to Scotland in March for more training ahead of the world championships. They say they’ll take the lessons and friendships that came with the unique living arrangement with them. 

“The biggest thing we got out of it was just to live our lives and make the most of all the experience that we have,” Hood said.

“What they've been talking to us about was honestly just have fun and live life and just enjoy it,” Sargon added.

Their housemates will miss them as well.

“Words can't explain it how nice it is for them to be here with us,” Esplen said.

And come the first rock in Switzerland, Team New Zealand’s biggest fans will be cheering them on.

“When they go to Worlds, we'll stream their games as much as we can on the TV downstairs and we'll watch it together,” Murray said.