Road To The Olympic Games

Scotties inspires community — Brier now takes centre stage

There's been a shift to hosting the Scotties and Briers in smaller locations across Canada, an important step in rebuilding grassroots curling. It was a big hit in Sydney, N.S., which hosted the Scotties last week. Now the focus turns to Brandon, Man., where the men will compete in the upcoming Brier.

Curling’s big bonspiels move to smaller centres embraced by communities

Sydney, N.S., reaped the benefits of hosting the Scotties Tournament of Hearts. (Devin Heroux/CBC Sports)

It was the night after the stunning Scotties final. A group of locals were all gathered at the historic Sydney Curling Club, just down the street from where the drama unfolded at Centre 200, getting ready for their Monday night curling league games.

A string of clear Christmas lights lines the roof of the old club built more than 100 years ago, creating a warm and quaint atmosphere. It has an undeniable curling club smell, ripe with beer-swilling memories of draws to the button and double takeouts for last-shot wins. Photos of past board members, winning teams and provincial representatives who went onto play in Scotties and Briers years ago decorate the walls. 

The local curlers were still buzzing about how the game finished — an historic comeback by Alberta's Chelsea Carey after Ontario's Rachel Homan missed two draws to win the championship. Then they wanted to talk about the event itself and whether or not they were able to pull off the big bonspiel.

WATCH | Carey, Alberta win Scotties Tournament of Hearts in shocking fashion:

Chelsea Carey's Alberta rink trailed 5-1 after the 4th end, but managed to comeback all the way back to beat Ontario's Rachel Homan 8-6 in the finals of the 2019 Scotties Tournament of Hearts. 2:15

Some 370 volunteers, most from the Cape Breton and the surrounding area, came together to put on the Scotties — months of planning seemingly executed to perfection. Downtown businesses had signs and painted displays in their front windows welcoming curlers and fans from coast-to-coast. Local restaurants and coffee shops were buzzing with excitement over the chance to showcase their community. Volunteers were ready and waiting to spring into action, wanting to help in any way possible or simply just smile to make those who had come from afar feel welcome.

Brandon Toner is new to the world of curling. (Submitted by Brandon Toner)

"I'm so proud of Cape Breton," said Sydney, N.S., native Brandon Toner. "But sometimes you exist in this world where we know the warm and hospitable identity of the island but you wonder if we're going to be able to pull it off."

Toner, 26, is new to the curling scene thanks in part to having won a free year membership at the Sydney Curling Club through an online contest just over a year ago. He admits to not having followed curling closely over the years but when he heard the Scotties was coming he wanted to be a part of it.

"I think it was the day after they called for volunteers that I immediately signed up," Toner said. "It was here in Sydney, Cape Breton, home. You want to make sure it was a success."

Day after day throughout the tournament, Toner found himself in the middle of the Scotties action, volunteering for more than 30 hours over the week mostly down at ice-level scoring many of the games. He had a front-row seat to world-class curling but was also making sure he was doing everything he could to make the curlers and visitors feel at home.

"We have this special something that's kind of hard to put your finger on. Maybe it's the music, maybe it's the food, maybe it's the culture. There's something else, intangibles, that come out during events like this," Toner said.

It wasn't all that long ago the Sydney Curling Club faced an uncertain future with membership dwindling but after a Scotties tournament, Toner feels momentum is now on their side.

"I think it's going to be magical for the curling community here. I'd love to see this sport take off in Sydney," Toner said. "Having the Scotties here can inspire a connection to the game you don't get on TV."

The consensus at the club that Monday night was that Cape Breton put on a world-class curling show and the community was better off because of it. 

Showcasing curling and community

And maybe that's what this is all about. At its core curling has always been about community and bonding. Throughout Canada there are curling rinks sprinkled across the land — the heartbeat for smaller communities and meeting spots on cold winter nights. It's always been about so much more than throwing rocks down pebbled sheets — it's about getting together and feeling part of a team, community, something bigger.

There's been a shift to hosting the Scotties and Briers in smaller locations across Canada, an important step in rebuilding grassroots curling. In years past, the bigger Canadian cities were the hosts. But in some cases, especially more recently, the events got lost in the hoopla of the bright lights of sprawling metropolises.

Alberta skip and Scotties champion Chelsea Carey, left, with Jill Ramsay's daughter Jorja. (Submitted by Jill Ramsay)

It's also much more difficult these days to attract fans to live sporting events, many who would rather watch on TV. Curling Canada is putting the bonspiels in communities that can rally around them now — there's an ownership and pride that exits in smaller centres you just can't duplicate. The Scotties and Brier then become the biggest shows in town.

Sydney is a city of about 31,000 located on Cape Breton Island's east coast. It's a far ways from the centre of Canada and not the easiest place to get to — just ask many of the curlers who had to take trains, planes and automobiles to arrive after storm delays. It's a place that doesn't always get that much recognition. And yet the Scotties arrived and hundreds of thousands of eyes were placed upon the small island city in the dead of winter.

"We saw our communities come alive with vibrancy and energy that would be hard to find in the month of February in Cape Breton," said Kathleen Yurchesyn. "Considered to be the off-season when it comes to tourism here on the island, the influx of upwards of 5,800 people coming from outside is substantial."

Yurchesyn, 28, is the CEO of the Cape Breton regional Chamber of Commerce. She says the business community's response to hosting the event was overwhelming — they didn't need much convincing when it came to getting into the Scotties spirit, including extended business hours throughout. Yurchesyn says the Scotties injected a civic pride not often realized in the cold months, all while showcasing the community they all care so much about.

While the economic impact of hosting the Scotties is still unknown, Yurchesyn says the publicity gained from the event is a great boost to the community.

Magical Scotties moments

Jill Ramsay was swept away in the Scotties fever. A volunteer and die-hard fan, Ramsay attended nearly every single game throughout the event.

"I attended 23 of the 24 draws," Ramsay said. "I wanted to be at Centre 200 all the time. The energy and magic in the building and community was numbing."

Ramsay, her husband and daughter Jorga, had quite a few memorable moments throughout the week. From taking selfies with their favourite curlers, to getting autographs and even her daughter getting Kerri Einarson's jersey after the wild card game, Ramsay says she'll never forget the event nor will her daughter and her daughter's friends.

Six-time Scotties champion Jill Officer, left, with Ramsay. (Submitted by Jill Ramsay)

"These are memories these 10-year-old girls will never forget," said Ramsay. "The huge smiles, genuine conversations, encouragement to practice warmed my heart as well as theirs." 

Now the curling scene shifts to another small Canadian city. Brandon, Man., is this year's host for the Brier, set to start on Friday. Some 48,000 people live in the province's second largest city, located about about 210 kilometres west of Winnipeg.

The roaring game is getting back to its root and in the process of growing at a grassroots level across Canada that is so badly needed.

"The Scotties as a whole, as a new curler and someone new to the sport, seeing it live and being part of the process really solidified my love of the game," said Toner. "It's what I hope happens to other smaller cities who get to host the Scotties or the Brier."

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