In amongst all of the regional playdowns that have been going on in the various age-group and gender Scottish championships these past few weeks – all of them hugely important, of course – a group of middle- to late middle-aged (0K - old!) men have disappeared off on a jaunt to Canada: twenty of them have flown off to the far west; a further twenty are in the centre of the country and twenty more are curling in the east.
Let me admit something up front here; I was on the 2003 centenary tour to Canada, so there will be the slightest smidgin of bias in this blog! I was also lucky enough to compete in the final stages of quite a few Scottish championships and consider my one appearance in a world championship as the highlight of my curling life, but playing as a member of the Scottish Strathcona Cup team in 2003 is right up there as well – albeit in a different and perhaps more private kind of a way.
We need to get real – it is different. First, you are picked to go on the tour and there are various criteria used to whittle down over 90 applicants to the 60 tourists. Patently, curling ability is one of them, but not the only one; the ability to win playdowns is not high on the agenda, if only because there aren’t any! Actually, perhaps the most important criterion is the ability to get on with 19 disparate people over a period of three weeks without irrevocably falling out.
One of my 2003 team mates put it all rather nicely when he described going on tour as “not the holiday of a lifetime, but certainly the experience of a lifetime”. Touring is a marathon. Each day starts with “morning class”. This longstanding tradition was introduced to curling by the late Collie Campbell, a noted Canadian curling personality and administrator. It involves gin is all I am saying!
Normally, there are two sessions of curling per day; often but not always, one of the tourist teams is off session by session. Even with the off session every fifth or sixth game – even then, it is a tough gig, so you had better be fit and ready. You travel around the country from rink to rink in a blur of curling, sleeping, drinking, fun and fellowship.
Back in the day, the Strathcona Cup tour travelled the length and breadth of the country. Pre-war, tourists travelled by ship and the tour lasted six or seven weeks. Nowadays, the tour lasts around three weeks and tourists can expect to play around thirty games of curling in all kinds of different rinks – from small two-sheeter village rinks to the grand eight-sheeters in the cities. Some of the curling clubs are run by the members for the members; others are part of a larger country club complex with all the mod-cons and luxury you would expect. What astounds the first-time Scot visiting Canada to curl is the sheer number of rinks – every village, township, town and city will have at least one rink. The sport is huge over there; it is part of the social fabric of the country. If you meet a Canadian, they will know someone who curls and have probably have had a go themselves.
Everyone knows Eve Muirhead, Hammy McMillan, Tom Brewster, David Murdoch and David Smith; they are all more famous in Canada than they are in the land of their birth. It’s a fact. Scotland is the home of the game, but Canada has adopted it and developed it beyond our wildest dreams.
Another fact for you: the standard of club curler out there is, in my experience, a lot higher than it is over here in Scotland. We would regularly come up against a team of what you might think of as “dirt-trackers”. Then, they would get on the ice and the one shot of which none of them seemed in the least scared was the cold draw to the four-foot. Time and again, we would be lying nicely and time and again, the skip would calmly wander down to the hack and cover the pot-lid!
Another thing we noticed was the consistency of the ice. It is, of course, a lot easier to make ice in a dry and very cold climate than it is in our mixed and often quite wet weather. All of the rinks that we played on were dedicated curling rinks – another factor that helps the ice technicians. But it was always keen and true; in thirty-odd games, I only played on one sheet that you would describe as “drug”.
Anyhow, back to the Strathcona Cup 2013. They are coming to the end of their tour as I write and you can follow their last week – indeed you can read about the whole tour - on their website here.
It is a grand old tradition and it gives many curlers their only shout at playing for Scotland. OK – it’s not a world championship, but in its own way, these five-year get-togethers between the curlers of Scotland and Canada are every bit as important. If you get a chance to go – take it!