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Curling Day in Canada

Some Very Unsung Heroes……..

jim ridenour

February 9, 2023

Back in the 1990s, I was invited by a coworker to attend an open house and on-ice instruction session at the local curling club. My only prior exposure to curling was as a young child in Northwestern Pennsylvania in the early 1960s, where I would turn the rotary dial on the family TV looking for something to watch. Most of our programming came out of Buffalo, NY, but one (channel 13, CHCH-TV) was from Hamilton, Ontario, and occasionally, it would be showing curling matches. To this day, I do not know who was playing or where, because there were no announcers or any explanation, nor any visible audience. In fact, in retrospect, it strikes me a bit like the way some stations air the yule log in the fireplace these days, where you see the fire and hear it crackling, and little else. My brother-in-law was from the same hometown, had a similar experience growing up, and he had been similarly solicited by his coworkers from GE; we dared each other to attend. We joined the club and got into a league where the downrinks were beginners, the vice skips were experienced curlers and the skips were curlers with a couple of years of experience in the downrink but none in the uprink positions. Throughout the season, we would sometimes be made aware of upcoming in-house bonspiels and be invited to sign up. I would always decline, believing that it was still too soon to inflict my skill level on the rest of the membership.

As the season was coming to an end, I finally agreed to sign up for the last in-house men’s bonspiel. I arrived for the first draw, not really knowing what to expect. I changed clothes, went to the warm room and found over 30 club members (virtually none of whom I had ever met, having only played in my little beginner league). To a man, they were leaning on their brooms and staring silently out the windows onto the ice. Through the glass, I saw another gentleman whom I did not know or recognize. He was moving through the ice shed, doing I knew not what. He seemed to be very agitated, nervously looking at his watch and the warm room bunch. After about 10 minutes of this, I saw that he was heading toward the corner near where the warm room and compressor room doors opened onto the sheets. As he got there, I opened the door a wee bit and put my face into the opening. “Excuse me, sir” I said, with great hesitation. He fixed me with his gaze as I continued. “I’m sorry, and I know we haven’t met or anything, but between the way all these guys are staring out the window and the way you keep looking at your watch, I get the impression that you are up against it and that you seem to have no help. I know absolutely nothing about what you are doing, but if there is any way at all that I can help you somehow, just tell me.” With that, he looked at me again, and without a word reached for my arm and pulled me through the door into the ice shed. He pointed out a dustpan; when I came back with it he was sweeping up a pile of something. I held the dustpan while he swept the debris into it and directed me to empty it into a waste can along the wall. At that point, the warm room door opened, the rest of the curlers came out and our games commenced.

After the games ended, we were all sitting in the warm room with our teams and those we had just played. The man I held the dustpan for saw me and came across the room from where he and his team were. He introduced himself, not having had time to earlier, and then said something that I will never, ever forget: “I have good news and bad news. The good news is, you are now on the ice committee. The bad news is, the only way off of the ice committee is in a box.” True to his word, he welcomed me, taught me all that he had learned about working on the ice over his time in the club, and picked me to be on his bonspiel teams where he taught me about strategy and many other things related to how the ice conditions played into some of his calls. A few years down the road, I became the ice maker, and went on to acquire various certifications, in the continuing quest to improve my knowledge and skills to better serve our members.

I am proud to have served with men and women just like me, at all levels of competition from club events thru regional and national competitions and on to Olympic and World Championships, and to have served at all levels of responsibility at major events from generic ice tech volunteer to Assistant Chief Ice Technician. I have also regularly been the only Yank icemaker at many events, including the Brier and the Canadian Olympic Trials. Being a Yank, I fully understand that I am not eligible to be awarded the prize that I ostensibly appear to be applying for here. I am not suggesting that it should be otherwise; the rules are the rules, and as any true curler would agree, that is as it should be.

So, what am I doing then? Far beyond the superficial gratification I could derive from attending a great curling competition, I seek to fulfill an even greater desire – to avail myself of a real opportunity to invite you to acknowledge and recognize some fantastic people: experienced, skilled ice technicians who, like me have worked long and hard in the shadows to bring these major events off. They typically spend their own money to travel to the event city, paying for their own hotel accommodations and all the rest that goes with it, not just for the event, but also for the installation period beforehand as well. And that is after already having paid a not insignificant fee to the organizing committee to volunteer in the first place. Often, their task will begin in the middle of the night within minutes of the conclusion of a hockey game on the arena ice, and they may be on the hook to restore the hockey ice when the event concludes as well. And, as event organizers allot fewer and fewer days to the install, those days for those volunteers get longer and longer. Occasionally during the install period, an event sponsor like Tim Hortons might set up a coffee station in the arena that the ice makers are allowed to use, but almost invariably once the event officials show up a few days later, that station is moved into their area, and the icemakers are not made welcome, sometimes even being specifically excluded from it.

I very gratefully want to recognize, not me, but so many of you, out there in the arenas and the curling clubs, mostly Canadians, who have made my life experience such a fulfilling thing. You welcomed me onto ice crews at all levels; you fed my desire to serve, my desire to learn and to hone my ice making skills. You inculcated a genuine, fulsome sense of camaraderie even greater than that of some very strong curling teams that I have played on. Most of all, you made me want all the more to do the absolute best that could be done wherever I was working, in whatever role, at whatever level of competition, so that I might not reflect poorly on you, my ice maker friends and colleagues, serving curling clubs, curlers and fans across the continent and around the world.