CLANWILLIAM — They charge $1.50 for a piece of pie now at the Clanwilliam Curling Club. You know, inflation.
It used to be a loonie, before the curlers urged the volunteers a couple years ago to raise the price of a slice of homemade apple or blueberry or pumpkin pies by at least a quarter.
Time can stand still in places like Clanwilliam, a tiny hamlet just 16 kilometres north of Minnedosa where the curling club, which looks like a giant, aluminum sardine can, lies in the shadow of a long-since abandoned elevator. There are about a dozen houses, not all of them occupied.
Yet on a recent Saturday, the curling club, all two sheets of it, was a beehive of activity. The Skins Bonspiel had eight teams participating and the few rows of seats inside the viewing area were filled. The ladies behind the counter were serving up inch-thick cheeseburgers and the aforementioned pie.
Probably not unlike 100 years ago, when the Clanwilliam club was born.
“I’m very proud,” said Jim Richards of this town’s little patch of ice. “I enjoy the curling and the camaraderie. Some people, you wouldn’t see them if it wasn’t for the rink. It keeps the community together.”
But Clanwilliam’s modest rink is an anomaly in rural Manitoba, where the vast majority of once prosperous clubs — the beacons of social activity in many small communities — are fighting for survival in an age of depopulation and declining interest in the Roaring Game.
Two decades ago, the Clanwilliam club was on life support, with just four remaining men’s clubs. Today, there are 13 men’s teams, with participants ranging in age from seven to 83. The club volunteers recently built an addition, too, that serves as a small dining area.
Out in the Prairie heartland of the game, that’s progress. But whether tiny Clanwilliam can last another 100 winters might be a long shot. Since the mid-1960s, the number of clubs registered with Curl Manitoba (formerly the Manitoba Curling Association) has fallen from around 350 to 110. Another 30 or 40 clubs still operate, but are too small in numbers to bother registering, according to Curling Manitoba president Resby Coutts.
The decline is not a secret, nor a mystery. For example, Coutts was raised in the small farming community of Elva, in southwestern Manitoba. “I grew up curling in a one-sheet rink in a town that doesn’t exist anymore,” he likes to say.
For those towns, the curling club has gone the way of the post office, the elevators, the banks and the schools. Gone, period.
However, the depopulation of rural Manitoba — the larger farms, the loss of young families — has been exacerbated, at least when it comes to curling, by a galling lack of foresight, Coutts conceded.
“We have come through a time of institutional arrogance,” he said. “We assumed everything was good because it was good for the last 20 to 30 years. We never started thinking until recent times that there was a problem. It worries me.”
Added Curl Manitoba executive director Shane Ray: “Manitoba was such a booming curling community we didn’t worry about (recruitment). We just assumed people would curl, right? And we lost a generation. Now we’re seeing the results in our clubs.”
Indeed, during the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, the local curling club in a small Manitoba community was very likely more of a social hub than the town bar. The joint was jumping. Not only did parents in their thirties curl, making up the majority, but so did their young kids. Weekend bonspiels were major events.
A way of life isn’t the only change in rural curling. For years, the best rural clubs could compete with the finest teams from the city Glenboro’s Albert (Ab) Gowanlock won two Briers, the first in 1938. It was rare but not unusual for a rural team to win the provincial title decades later; Lac du Bonnet’s John Usackis in 1977, Mel Logan of Souris in 1982 and Deloraine’s Duane Edwards in 1990. So thousands of little rural kids grew up believing they could win the Brier.
Today, however, the notion a small-town foursome could ever compete with the elite — given the evolution of curling into an Olympic sport, where top teams compete nearly full time on a national circuit of tournaments — is now more fairy tale than realistic.
Even the best rural teams made up of farmers, small businessmen or teachers, pretty much admit defeating Jeff Stoughton to win the Manitoba provincial title would be a dream. Literally.
“There’s a two-tier level in curling now,” said Rob Van Kommer, a competitive curler from Carberry who has earned seven trips to the Manitoba provincials. “There’s the Jeff Stoughton’s and Mike McEwen’s. Those teams have jobs and families that let them travel, and sponsors. They can put the time in you need to go to the Olympics. You can’t blame the guys who can pull that off. But has it hurt the game? Yes.”
But forget the Olympics. For the majority of small clubs — more and more that now sit idle in winter — just keeping the doors open is the most pressing goal.
“It’s unfortunate, but it (the game) is in trouble,” added Van Kommer, who also serves as vice-president of Manitoba curling. “It costs so much to keep the clubs open. You just don’t have the population to keep up.”
And this is coming from a guy who oversees what is unanimously considered the finest rural bonspiel in Manitoba, which this year (Feb. 18-25) attracted 100 teams, 72 men’s and 28 women’s, for the club’s 125th anniversary. There were $25,000 in prizes available.
Yet the Carberry men’s and women’s league numbers in general have been in “very strong decline.”
Even in Clanwilliam, Richards understands the local renaissance at his rink runs contrary to the surroundings.
“In the last 30 years, it’s gone down really bad in our area,” the icemaker said. “We’re hanging on. It’s alarming. It (rural Manitoba) is supposed to be the hub of curling and we’re not holding our own.
“There’s just not enough population and the population has too many choices. It’s going to be hard to find younger people to take over.”
So is rural curling suffering a slow death? That’s up to the remaining curlers themselves.
In Dauphin, the numbers of men’s and women’s teams have dropped by at least 30 per cent over the last two decades — but that same decline has led to a rather dramatic development: Kid curlers everywhere.
Five years ago, local farmer Mark Hadway and teacher Gord Wood, two curling buddies, began to introduce the Rock and Rings Program (where kids can learn to curl on gym floors) at local schools. Three years ago, Hadway and Wood decided to take the next step and start an on-ice program for grades 1 to 8 students.
“The next day at the curling rink in Dauphin we had 100 kids come out,” Hadway recalled. “It was overwhelming.”
Today, there are 170 kids registered in the augustly-named Dauphin Junior Curling Academy. That compares to 110 registered in local minor hockey. It also dwarfs the number of adult curlers at the Dauphin Curling Club.
The curling community in Carberry has also been active in attracting youth. A few years ago, the Carberry club bought a set of Rocks and Rings for the local school division. The set was a hit and the division bought six more sets, one for each school.
Carberry has a history of developing some of the top young competitive curlers in the province (recently Trevor Calvert and Joey Witherspoon) and the town club has for years stepped up to pay for entry fees or clinics for junior teams. “If they’re willing to put the time in, we made sure we looked after them,” Van Kommer said.
It used to be that curling was marketed as “the sport that could last a lifetime.” But not if the local rink closes.
At Clanwilliam, they can’t predict the future. But Liz Davies, who emigrated to the region from Wales 10 years ago and took a shine to the game, doesn’t like the thought of the town’s two-sheeter closing.
Standing behind the counter where they sell pie for $1.50, Davies said, “It would be a long winter.”
» Winnipeg Free Press
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition March 23, 2013