Former MP Hunter Tootoo takes on new role as Nunavut Curling Association president
Former fisheries minister hopes to build on the territory's recent strides
Hunter Tootoo remembers the pride he felt when Team Nunavut made its Tim Hortons Brier debut in 2016.
A Liberal MP at the time, Tootoo said it was quite emotional to be on hand at Ottawa's TD Place Arena to finally see the territory represented at the national men's curling championship.
"You couldn't believe they were there," Tootoo said. "I know it was something that we fought for for a long time to be able to get access. To see it finally happen, it was just overwhelming."
Tootoo hopes to build on the territory's recent strides in his new role as Nunavut Curling Association president. The former fisheries minister, who has curled for over 20 years, started in the position this season.
He had his work cut out for him at the start. The COVID-19 pandemic delayed the opening of the Iqaluit Curling Club, the only facility planning to operate in the territory this season.
The opening was finally confirmed a few weeks ago under return-to-play guidelines and play could begin in a matter of days.
"Everything is running a bit late," Tootoo said from Iqaluit. "The ice is going in right now. Hopefully later this week or early next week it'll be ready."
Iqaluit club is only option for playdowns
Tootoo said facilities in Rankin Inlet and Cambridge Bay are not planning to operate this season. By default, that leaves the Iqaluit club - which has about 400 members - as the only option for territorial playdowns.
Registration is underway in what is essentially a club championship with the winners earning berths in the Brier and the Scotties Tournament of Hearts.
"We're hoping to but we'll see," Tootoo said. "With all the travel restrictions, that's going to present some challenges for people to be able to participate."
It remains unclear whether players who don't reside in Nunavut will be able to compete in the Jan. 8-10 competition. Normally curlers can use birthright status or the import rule to play but travel restrictions could affect entries.
"Right now they'd have to apply for an exemption and go into quarantine for two weeks before they come up," Tootoo said.
He added that work is underway on a contingency plan in case of playdown challenges due to the pandemic, an issue that could affect a number of associations around the country.
Nunavut's Brier debut came in a play-in competition - an unpopular qualification round that saw losing teams relegated - that was dropped when the championship moved to a 16-team format in 2018.
With the main draw not beginning until two days later, there was no hoopla, bagpipe walkout or television coverage on that first evening. A couple dozen spectators were scattered around the 9,500-seat arena.
It didn't matter to skip Wade Kingdon and his team in that formative season. An early exit after three losses didn't dim their enthusiasm either.
The scorelines have improved in recent years as the modest program has developed.
Nunavut's Scotties debut also came in 2016 and the territory earned its first main-draw victory last year when Jenine Bodner edged Quebec's Gabrielle Lavoie 4-3.
The team reached a higher level last season. Lori Eddy skipped Nunavut to a surprise 6-5 win over Northern Ontario's Krista McCarville and a 7-6 victory over Quebec's Noemie Verreault.
Eddy nearly upset Team Canada before Chelsea Carey came back for a 6-5 victory. The last few ends were shown on national TV - a rarity for Team Nunavut - and that got people's attention in the territory.
'Motivated by the success'
"There were all kinds of comments from people watching all over," Tootoo said. "How proud they were and how happy they were with how [well] the ladies were doing."
"It really seemed to take off and then the younger kids in the community really picked up on that," said Donalda Mattie, who coached the Nunavut side. "They were motivated by the success of those ladies. I hope that it will continue."
With youngsters Kaitlin MacDonald and Sadie Pinksen gaining valuable experience, the team finished with a 2-5 record, a best for Nunavut at the competition.
"We would hope that that will transfer over to maybe some sponsorship for the teams," Mattie said. "It's expensive for the teams to travel and to go out and do spiels.
"But I'm certainly hoping that that excitement will continue on. It certainly seemed to with the [juniors]."
Tootoo represented Nunavut in 2013 at the Dominion Curling Club Championship, the first of three appearances he made at the national playdowns for club players.
He's happy with his new role on the curling scene and can't wait to finally throw some stones.
"Going to do a couple of floods at the curling rink today,"