Road To The Olympic Games

Losing your voice in curling is a skip's worst nightmare

It’s one of the quirky parts of the roaring game that casual observers find most amusing — skips yelling at their sweepers to “hurry hard.” But for as many jokes made about all the yelling and screaming in curling, it’s a pivotal part of the game and strategy. Nova Scotia's Jill Brothers knows this all too well.

‘It sucks,’ Nova Scotia’s Jill Brothers on her inability to shout out instructions

Jill Brothers and her Nova Scotia are out of playoff contention at the Scotties. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

SYDNEY, N.S. — It's one of the quirky parts of the roaring game that casual observers find most amusing — skips yelling at their sweepers to "hurry hard."

But for as many jokes made about all the yelling and screaming in curling, it's a pivotal part of the game and strategy.

It quickly becomes a skip's worst nightmare when their vocal chords start giving out on them and screams turn into squeals.

That exact scenario happened to Nova Scotia skip Jill Brothers this week at the Scotties. The 35-year-old mother of two wanted so badly to play her best curling in front of a hometown crowd. But she quickly lost her voice in the national championship.

Now, the rink has lost five of its six games and is out of playoff contention.

Throughout her games she's being doing her best to communicate with her team with hand signals, wildly flailing her arms from the house at times as her sweepers try to read the ice.

"It sucks. It's hard. It's just really disappointing," Brothers said as tears streamed from her eyes.

The problem is compounded by the fact that she's the talker on the team — she's the one that keeps the team's communication positive and upbeat even in the face of challenges on the ice.

"I'm prone to losing my voice but it's always when I have some kind of a little cold or maybe in the last two games of an event but this is excessive," she said.

Russ Howard and the walkie-talkie scandal

Legendary curling skip and TSN commentator Russ Howard knows exactly what Brothers is going through.

"I feel for Jill. I could cry for her," Howard said. "The real frustrating part is you're calling line and nobody hears you and the third time they hear you, you're on the guard."

The colourful and charismatic line-caller was known for his boisterous screaming and hollering. In fact, Howard losing his voice at a bonspiel was something the fans waited for.

He earned the nickname "wounded moose" for his yelling antics.

But it reached a new level at the 1989 Brier in Saskatoon, leading to one of the biggest curling controversies ever.

Howard lost his voice early in the event and had just lost a game badly. It was after that loss when one of his friends told him to go to Radio Shack and buy walkie-talkies to communicate.

"So we went to Radio Shack in Saskatoon and bought these headsets," laughed Howard. "I think they were $40 bucks and we were in the hotel lobby trying them out. We would take steps back further and further and it kept working."

That next game Howard stood in the house with his headset walkie-talkie while his second, Tim Belcourt, wore the other one. It worked perfectly.

"I could barely whisper and they heard everything," Howard said. "We just lost a previous game because we were wrecking on all the guards and then went out with the headsets and I think we were 92 or 93 per cent as a team."

Former skip Russ Howard was no stranger to losing his voice on the ice. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Canadian Curling Association steps in

But in the middle of their walkie-talkie debut, a Canadian Curling Association (CCA) official intervened.

"Halfway through the game, the official came out on the ice and told me they needed to talk to me after the game," Howard said. "And I ask why? And he said 'I'm not telling you.'"

After the game the CCA took Howard into a room in the underbelly of the arena.

"They pulled me aside and told me it was illegal and against the rules," Howard said. "I told them to show me the rule. And they didn't have one."

The scandal captured headlines across the country. In fact, a press conference was held prior to Howard's next game to ask him about the walkie-talkies.

"I've never seen anything like it. There were like 50 reporters there. Normally there would have been three people," he said.

Howard went on to explain that there was no rule banning him from using the walkie-talkies and that he would continue using them. And he did.

"Just before the second game with them, I think it was against Quebec, I warned them that I was going to do it again. I hadn't broken a rule. I was trying to win the Brier," Howard said.

Howard's Ontario rink got another win using the walkie-talkies at that Brier but it would be the last game they would be able to use them.

The CCA was livid and was working on finding a way to ban the electronic devices.

"We hadn't even shaken hands and they were pulling me off the sheet and pulled me into a room again," Howard recalls. "They came up with a rule, no electronic devices. I said, 'great, that's fine but what about all the teams using stop watches?'"

"An hour later, [there was an] amendment to the rule."

According to Howard, officials feared he could get secret signals from the crowd to gain an edge.

"I'm bragging for a second but I'd like to think I can handle the strategy on my own as opposed to my mother radioing me signals."

By that time in the bonspiel Howard had regained his voice and yelled and screamed all the way to an 8-3 record — he would end up losing in that year's semifinal.

Now a broadcaster, Howard has learned all the tricks to saving his voice for hours of talking — a trick he learned late in his playing career. 

"Hot salt water with four or five aspirin. Your voice comes back in a hurry," he laughed. "My voice would go from 10 per cent to 40 per cent just by gargling that."

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