Small town, big bonspiel: Whitewood prepares to host Sasktel Tankard

The town of Whitewood will be the smallest community to ever host the Saskatchewan men's provincial curling championship, the Sasktel Tankard.

Whitewood will be the smallest community to ever host men's provincial curling championship

The stage is set for Whitewood, Sask. to host the 2019 Sasktel Tankard men's curling championship. (Submitted by Chad Kelly)

Whitewood, Sask. is a small town that isn't afraid to think big when it comes to curling.

Despite having a population of less than 1,000 people, Whitewood is gearing up to host the Saskatchewan men's provincial curling championship, the Sasktel Tankard — making it the smallest community ever to do so.

From Feb. 6-10, 16 of Saskatchewan's best teams will gather in Whitewood, which is approximately 175 kilometres east of Regina. They'll be competing for a spot at the Tim Hortons Brier taking place in Brandon, Man., later this year.

The Tankard is usually hosted by much larger communities, but the town was more than up for the challenge. The Whitewood Curling Club has been been successfully running the 64-team Farmers and Friends bonspiel for several years.

"It was something that was brought on to us this July. CURLSASK called us and said 'would you be willing to host the Tankard? We know it's short notice but we heard you guys have run a successful bonspiel... and we're willing to give you a shot.'" said Chad Kelly, president of the Whitewood Curling Club and one of the Tankard's organizers.

The streets of Whitewood will soon play host to some of Saskatchewan's best curlers and most dedicated curling fans. (Submitted by Chad Kelly)

Preparing for the Tankard has become a community effort, organized by the same team that helps put on the Farmers and Friends bonspiel each year. Local businesses have offered sponsorships and more than 150 volunteers will turn out to help make the event a success.

"We're running in about a hundred different directions right now, but the town's really on board," Kelly said.

Curling comeback

Curling hasn't always been as popular in Whitewood as it is now. Kelly says that when he first moved to the community several years ago, the sport was on a bit of a decline.

"Everyone that grew up curling was kind of in a stage where they're raising families and didn't have time to commit to curling," Kellly said."It was hard to get people to commit one night a week to curl in the leagues."

"Everyone has kind of thrown a rock or picked up a broom at one point in their lives and knows what the game is about, but they're a little nervous to get into more competitive leagues," Kelly said.

After a period of decline, curling is making a big comeback in Whitewood.

In an effort to make curling more accessible, the Whitewood Curling Club set up a recreational "social league" for people that just wanted to play and have fun.

"It's been really successful," Kelly said. "[When] we started we only had three teams in a league and now we run with 12 teams in that league. It's full every Tuesday night."

The social league was only the beginning Whitewood's curling renaissance, however. 

The big bonspiel

Some of Whitewood's avid curlers take to the ice at a past event. (Submitted)

After being elected president of the Whitewood Curling Club, Kelly decided to see if he could turn an ambitious idea into reality: hosting the largest indoor bonspiel in the province. This idea is what would eventually become the Farmers and Friends event.

They started with an original goal of 32 teams, but that number quickly grew to 64 — so many teams that the town's four sheets of curling ice wouldn't be able to accommodate them all.

"The first year it was a struggle," Kelly said. "but we finally got up to 64 teams [and] we ended up putting up five additional sheets of curling over on the hockey side, plus our four on the curling side, so it gave us nine sheets."

Growth from grassroots

For those looking to help curling grow in their own communities, Kelly cites the importance of getting people involved in the sport from an early age

"It all starts [at a] grassroots [level]. Junior curling is the essence of our sport and you need to get the kids off their iPads and onto the curling ice," Kelly said.

From there, it's all about finding ways to make curling accessible to everyone. With the right opportunities and support, it's a game that can be enjoyed at any age and any stage of life.

"It's called a lifetime sport. Our youngest curling member in our club is four years old and our oldest is 92," Kelly said. "It's something that even if they go out of it for five or ten years...that they can go right back in and pick it up again."

CBC Radio's Blue Sky is doing a monthly segment about good news happening in small communities around Saskatchewan. Have an idea for our next segment? Email us.

About the Author

Emily Klatt is a reporter and associate producer with CBC Saskatoon.

with files from CBC Radio's Blue Sky