Monday, January 30, 2012

Where would you rather curl?

Back in the 'good old days', it really was very simple: if it froze outside, you curled. If it didn’t, you didn’t. Oh, I know that the romantics out there yearn for the time when curling was only ever played when the plough was frozen in the furrow, but really? Years passed with stones lying unused and forgotten. Check your club’s old records and spot the gaps.

The 'indoor curling on artificial ice revolution' really started when some wise men in the west constructed the first Scottish Ice Rink at Crossmyloof, a suburb on Glasgow’s south side. It was opened in October 1907. Curlers were quick to take advantage – indeed the first visiting Canadian team came over and played for the Strathcona Cup in January and February 1909. Most of the test matches were played at the new indoor rink. In 1912, Edinburgh followed suit and Haymarket ice rink opened for business. Not long afterwards, a rink was opened in Aberdeen. When the original Crossmyloof rink was severely damaged by fire in 1917, Haymarket became, and remained, the only indoor venue in the Central Belt until 1928 when a new rink opened its doors on the old Crossmyloof site.

And that was kind of it until Great Britain upset the Canadian reigning champions and favourites by winning the ice hockey Gold Medal at the 1936 Winter Olympic Games in Garmisch Partenkirchen, Germany. Funny how completely unrelated events conspire to help another sport! Ice hockey took off in Britain and for a heady three years before the Second World War put paid to things, ice rinks, most with spectator facilities, sprang up all over the place. In 1936, Perth opened its doors for the first time and in 1938 new rinks opened in Ayr, Edinburgh (Murrayfield) and Kirkcaldy.

Throughout the forties and fifties, the sport of curling in Scotland was played (indoors) at Ayr, Crossmyloof, Falkirk, Edinburgh (Haymarket), Kirkcaldy, Perth, Dundee and Aberdeen. There were occasional games at other rinks like Paisley, but in the main, those eight rinks catered for the sport. They were all mixed use and the curlers had to share their ice (though not at the same time!) with skaters and ice hockey players. The rinks were run as businesses and ownership tended to be by shareholders and latterly, by individuals. There were no council-run facilities as far as I can ascertain and there was probably enough business to go around. Games took place over three hour sessions and it was not uncommon for there to be fifteen ends played on what we would now consider slow ice.

Starting with Kelso in 1962, there followed a rash of ice rink building in Scotland and it was during the next ten or so years that new rinks were built at Lockerbie, Stranraer, Ayr (replacing the original), Hamilton, Aviemore and Inverness. The sixties was a time of real and – important this – sustainable growth in the sport’s facilities and it is no surprise to report that all of those rinks, with the exception of Aviemore, are still in existence and that they all have contributed to the well-being of the game. Typically, a group of keen curlers, often lead by a 'worthy' – one thinks of Willie Wilson in Kelso, Bob Grierson in Stranraer or Tom Dickson at Hamilton, would get together, often after returning from a tour to Canada, and lobby the local community for a rink, which would duly be built.

Hammy McMillan started a new trend in 1970. He already owned the North West Castle hotel and had been approached by Bob Grierson about the possibility of building a rink attached to the hotel. Hammy went ahead and built it! It proved a winning formula with the weekend curling competitions attracting curlers from all over Scotland to compete. Others copied Hammy and new 'attached' rinks sprang up in places like Lochgoilhead, Letham Grange, Forest Hills and Brora. Sadly, they have all gone and we are left with the Green Hotel rink in Kinross and Greenacres in Renfrewshire. Interestingly, John Stevenson started Greenacres off as an addition to his hotel, but it has since developed as a rink in its own right – the only example of an ice rink outliving the original hotel!

The two original indoor rinks at Haymarket and Crossmyloof have since been replaced. In Edinburgh, curling now takes place at a dedicated rink attached to the original 1930s Murrayfield ice rink and in Glasgow, Braehead took over from the Summit Centre in the 1990s.

Four other privately-run rinks deserve a mention. Gogar Park was owned and run by the Gumley family. Sadly, it shut down and is now a garden shed for RBS. The Stirling rink replaced the old Falkirk rink and was financed by a share issue - £200 per share. I know this because I bought one. Interestingly, ownership bought you a free sheet of ice in lieu of interest. The rink finally closed down a couple of years ago when the new council-funded Peak Centre replaced it. The Curl Aberdeen facility replaced a rink at Dyce which in turn had replaced the old Donald’s rink. It was financed by a combination of private donation and lottery-funded grant money. The Inverness Ice Centre has been bought by the users (curlers and skaters) and is run by a board chaired by my old mucker, Tom Pendreigh.

Council-run facilities began to be used by curlers around about the nineteen-eighties and the sport has found new homes in centres like Harvies in Stevenson (the Magnum in Irvine having closed), the Galleon in Kilmarnock and the Dumfries Ice Bowl. There are, of course, others as well.

Now here is a big problem for our sport. On the one hand we should welcome any additional facilities that enable our sport to grow in a particular area, but on the other, we need to be careful where a situation pertains like that in the south of Scotland. There is an existing facility (Lockerbie) that is owned by shareholders. The rink has to 'clean its face' financially and has to set aside monies for the rainy day that the stones need replacing, for example. Perhaps, as at Murrayfield, the curlers are in the throes of 'buying the rin'”, so there is an additional cost that needs to be funded. The banks do not go away in all of this and if there are loans, then they need both to be serviced and, ultimately, paid off.

And along comes a cuckoo! The council build a brand spanking new rink at Dumfries Ice Bowl with all of the mod cons that you would expect of a new-build facility, and curling availability seven days a week. Hopefully, it will attract new curlers to the sport, but there cannot help but be leakage of existing business from the old to the new rink. All’s fair in love and war; competition is what makes the world go around, but ... There is not the same financial imperative on a council-run facility as there is on a business. It is not a competition of equals. Greenacres is a privately-owned ice rink that has to show a return. The Waterfront is a council-run facility that does not need to show the same return.

It would be a terrible shame if one of our existing rinks went bust because a council-run facility opened up next door. Where would you rather curl – a curling club over which you have some control, or a sports centre over which you have hee-haw control? Interesting question for us all to ponder this crisp winter’s morn.

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