Our skip, the friendly giant Uncle Joe, is teaching us both the code and the finer points of this beguiling tradition.
The game begins with handshakes and wishes of ‘good curling’ between teammates and competitors. Participants launch 40-pound granite stones down sheets of ice amidst animated shouts of “you’re too heavy” or “hurry hard.” It ends with the winners buying the losers a drink. What could be more civilized? What could be more Canadian?
It was more than 250 years ago, the lanky and melancholic Major General James Wolfe read Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard to his troops in flat-bottomed boats as they crossed the Saint Lawrence River on a moonless September night.
The foreboding line from the Elegy, “The paths of glory lead but to the grave…” prompted Wolfe to express to his men, “I would rather have written those lines than take Quebec tomorrow.” He would die hours later in the pivotal battle.
What you may not know, however, is the origins of Canadian curling accompanied our maudlin Major General in that river crossing.
The 78th Fraser’s Highland Regiment, originally assembled at Inverness, Scotland, was an integral part of his army and following the battle would spend the long and brutally cold winter of 1759-60 within the pulverized walls of Quebec.
The rapid onset of cabin fever thanks to the deep freeze in a new land clearly inspired a need for some fun, friendly competition, inclusiveness and camaraderie.
So it was in these challenging circumstances that a group of intrepid young men from the regiment decided to melt several cannonballs, make iron curling stones and become the first curlers in Canada.
Today, the vitality of those highlanders lives on. Hundreds of thousands of Canadians are active curlers, the sports channels broadcast bonspiels and “skins” games around the clock and there are clubs in cities and small towns in every province and territory.
Sue and I are fortunate to be guided in our initiation by Uncle Joe. A retired teacher, loved by his students for his humour, it’s a challenge to accompany him anywhere in town. His former pupils are a veritable posse of paparazzi chasing selfies with their hero-instructor. I begin to see why he is so appreciated as Joe focuses on the spirit of the game more than any specific rule.
In a contest where there are no referees, the onus is on the participants to ensure it is played in an orderly and fair manner. “Play the game with a spirit of sportsmanship and conduct yourself in an honourable manner both on and off the ice,” says our mentor.
The game is indeed a throwback. In an era of sports trash talk, the tradition of curling prohibits the intimidation or demeaning of opponents or teammates. This is not to say that playful humour during the ritual of the post-game drink is not welcome. On the contrary, getting to know your fellow curlers, telling a few stories and having a laugh or two is the highlight of every game.
Much as it must have done for Fraser’s Highlanders all those years ago, curling propels us to emerge from our dark, winter cocoons and into the light of fraternity.
Next week will be my last column published in this paper (in print or online). You can reach me at email@example.com – Twitter : @tedmarkle