Stuck in a championship drought, Saskatchewan curlers search for the secret to success
There's a push to re-establish the sport in a place that hasn't won a Brier since 1980
NORTH BATTLEFORD, Sask. — There's a certain type of pride prairie people exude when it comes to curling; harsh, cold winter nights are spent in small rinks playing the roaring game on natural ice.
There have been many greats to come from the flatlands, including the Richardson brothers who won four out of five Briers starting in 1959. And you can't talk about curling in Saskatchewan without bringing up the late Sandra Schmirler's team which won three Scotties, three world championships and Canada's first Olympic curling gold medal.
There have been great moments and there have been bad stretches too, like the one Saskatchewan is in right now.
Not since Rick Folk in 1980 has Saskatchewan won a Brier. The Scotties drought is considerably shorter, Amber Holland having won it in 2011. There have been junior and senior titles in there too, but the crown jewels of Canadian curling have been few and far between the past few decades.
Now CurlSask, the organization that oversees the sport in the province, is getting aggressive about getting back to the level it feels Saskatchewan is capable of curling.
Pat Simmons knows all too well the pressure and expectation of curling in the prairie province. He was born and raised in Moose Jaw, Sask., and has played in nine Briers.
Simmons could never win a Brier title for Saskatchewan but he did win two in his career — one with Kevin Koe as Team Alberta and once with John Morris as Team Canada. He came close to winning it all wearing the green and white, losing in the Brier semifinal to Glenn Howard in 2008.
Now he's back in Saskatchewan hoping to reignite curling.
"I hope and think it's going in the right direction," Simmons said. "We have some teams that have had great seasons. We desperately need teams in all leagues that push each other and I think we're starting to get that now."
Simmons is the CurlSask high performance director. He's in North Battleford this week at the Grand Slam of Curling event helping some of the Saskatchewan foursomes.
"Hopefully the young teams in this province have dreamed of wearing the Saskatchewan colours at a major event," he said. "If that's not a priority for all these teams there's something wrong."
Hitting the ice early
Simmons is trying to find every way possible to give Saskatchewan curlers an extra advantage. This year they held a high performance camp in August in North Battleford. Simmons said the curling season is starting much earlier than it used to and in the past local teams were falling behind because ice wasn't going in until late September, even October.
"Early in the year has always been a problem because typically ice doesn't get in until late September," he said. "There's a lot in the last two years that has happened that I didn't have the luxury of utilizing."
In some ways, it's become a little personal for Simmons to put Saskatchewan curling back on the map in the most competitive way possible.
"It has such a rich history and it's such a great curling province. So many people have either been involved or played," he said. "We're trying to do everything we can to quicken the curve so we're competing at all these events."
Stefanie Lawton has been a fixture in Saskatchewan curling for two decades. She burst onto the scene when she won a Canadian junior title for the province in 2000.
It was that win that sparked Lawton's curling career and she won that junior championship with her idol, Schmirler, watching.
"The juniors we won, Sandra was there commentating for CBC and I was able to meet her. They were a great team," Lawton said of Schmirler and her rink. "It was one of those things where she made me feel like I was this girl from Saskatchewan and there's a chance we could be at the Olympics."
Lawton has represented Saskatchewan at four Scotties. Now she's playing third on Robyn Silvernagle's team that's competing here this week.
She says they built somewhat of an all-star team to push for the Scotties this year and knows they have the support of the locals who so badly want to see curling glory restored in Saskatchewan.
"We all grew up playing this sport and the fans that are here are so supportive and knowledgeable," she said. "You can't fool them and they know what shot you should be playing."