Curling fans elated as world men's championship finally hits the ice in Ottawa
13-team tournament was slated for 2021, but then the pandemic happened
Samuel Akca didn't expect to be standing next to athletes from his home country, competing at the top level in the sport he loves.
But on Friday, Akca watched the Turkish men's curling team practice draws and takeouts on the ice at Ottawa's TD Place arena, one day before the country makes its debut at the world men's curling championships.
"I feel amazing!" said the 34-year-old curler, who'd never heard of the sport growing up but embraced it after arriving in Canada about 15 years ago.
He even caught the team's eyes and greeted them with a friendly merhaba and hoş geldin — "hello" and "welcome," respectively, in Turkish.
"I'm happy that I'm here to support them," Akca said. "And to just make them feel that they're not alone, as well."
Better late than never
With their men's team ranked 93rd in the world, Turkey might not be considered a global curling power.
But after a successful European qualifying run, the team has found itself among the 13 rinks descending on TD Place this weekend, as the nation's capital welcomes some of the world's best curlers — albeit two years behind schedule.
Ottawa was slated to host the worlds in 2021, but those plans were derailed when the COVID-19 pandemic forced curlers into the mostly fan-free "bubble" in Calgary.
"This was supposed to have happened a few years ago. That's a long wait for something pretty interesting," said Alex Birtwistle, vice-president of the Ottawa Curling Club.
One of the tournament's many volunteers, Birtwistle said she's delighted to be ferrying curlers around to media appearances over the course of the nine-day event.
Getting a chance to meet 2023 Brier champion Brad Gushue — the "hearthrob" of the sport when she was a teenager — would be especially cool, Birtwistle said.
"I'm pretty passionate about curling, so [the worlds are] really ticking all the boxes for me, that's for sure," she said. "I'm pretty excited just to be seeing some great shots and meeting some highly-skilled athletes."
Canada, Sweden rematch?
Many of those great shots will no doubt come courtesy of the Gushue rink, who'll be competing on home ice one year after settling for silver at the 2022 championship in Las Vegas.
They'll have to get past arch-rivals Sweden and their skip, Niklas Edin, whose team has won gold at the last four men's world championships and is both the reigning Olympic champion and the top-ranked rink in the world.
Other teams in contention include Italy (ranked third in the world), Scotland (sixth in the world and Olympic silver medallists), Switzerland (seventh in the world) and the U.S. (the 2018 Olympic champions).
Ticket sales have already exceeded expectations, Curling Canada said in an email to CBC, with Friday night's round-robin rematch between Canada and Sweden on pace to sell out.
An increasingly global sport
Teams have been practicing on sheets around the city this week, including at the Rideau Curling Club, where the South Korean rink recently squared off against Canada's top senior men's team for a friendly eight-end match.
That Canadian foursome — set to head to South Korea later this month for the senior men's world championship — even squeezed out a tight 7-6 win over the South Koreans, ranked 33rd in the world.
"It's amazing to see how [the sport's] taken off. Our senior worlds have 25 countries competing in it," said Chris Fulton, who plays second on the Canadian rink.
"It's really cool to see the globalization of the sport."
The first matches of the world men's championship get underway Saturday at 9 a.m. ET, with the final set for April 9.
As for Akca, he plans to head down to TD Place tonight to watch Turkey make their big first appearance against Japan — and then again later in the week, when they take on his adopted homeland.
"Both matches will be amazing," he said. "I can't wait."
With files from Sannah Choi and Giacomo Panico