Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

I like my bagpipes on the rocks

Winnipeg Police Pipe Band gets crowd pumped for Roar of the Rings

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If I believe anything, it's this -- there is nothing in the world that is not made a whole lot better by the addition of bagpipes.

Getting married? You need a piper. Getting buried? Need a piper. Going to Tim Hortons for a double-double and a chocolate doughnut? Technically, you don't need a piper, but you have to admit it would be pretty sweet.

And of all the things transformed from good to great by the presence of a piper, perhaps the best example is curling, a sport whose iconic history is interwoven with the fiery taste of single-malt Scotch and the majestic skirl of an instrument that has been inspiring and deafening warriors for centuries.

If you need proof, just check out Tim Hortons Roar of the Rings, where all 16 teams doing battle this week in the Canadian Olympic curling trials are being piped onto the ice before each draw by members of the Winnipeg Police Pipe Band, resplendent in their Royal Stewart tartan kilts.

"What's a curling match without bagpipes?" piper Dan Sloan asked after the band fired up the crowd at the opening ceremonies for Canada's marquee curling event. "It would be like whole-grain bread without the grain; it would be very flat."

Sloan said the 93-year-old pipe band -- the city's largest, with roughly 60 members -- couldn't be prouder to be playing a central role in an event that will decide which two teams represent Canada at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

"It's exciting," he said. "It's great for the city. It's great for the province. There's about 1,000 volunteers here -- that's a lot. This is a big event for the city. The crowd was really into it. The temperature in the arena is good for playing the pipes -- not too cold, not too warm."

The 48-year-old piper said an instrument famed for the loud production of sound is perfect for pumping up players and fans of the so-called roaring game.

"It brings some attention to it," he declared. "You get the thrill of the bagpipes. Pomp and ceremony is what the pipes are all about. It gets the blood pumping. For curling and parades, you've got to have a pipe band!"

When it comes to big events, Roar of the Rings isn't this band's first rodeo.

"We've played for the Queen, the Pan-Am Games, at every Grey Cup game and in August we played with Sir Paul McCartney," Sloan said.

"It was exhilarating (sharing the stage with McCartney), simply exhilarating. I've got goosebumps just thinking about it. But it's great to be on the ice for Roar of the Rings. It's great to be involved and part of the action."

For his part, Warren Hansen, director of event operations for the Canadian Curling Association, can't imagine the Roar of the Rings without the roar of the bagpipes.

"I get in this discussion with event staff every year," Hansen told me, laughing. "They'd like to play some rock music for the teams to walk in to, like at an NBA game. I just tell them it (the pipes) is one of the things that makes us different from anyone else and it's part of our history going back to 1500.

"It's the history of who we are. It's part of the game. We are as strong as our history and the bagpipes and our Scottish heritage is where we come from. This is a unique sport and the pipes are a big part of it."

Does being led into battle by a kilt-clad piper get the Olympic hopefuls' blood boiling. That's what I asked petite Cary-Anne McTaggart, the second for Renee Sonnenberg's Alberta rink, moments after her team dropped another hard-fought game Wednesday morning.

"It doesn't make my blood boil, but it's fun to see the crowd get into it," Cary-Anne, a 27-year-old registered nurse, said at ice-level in the MTS Centre. "It's a curling tradition, and any time you can go back to your roots, it pumps you up. It says it's time to go, it's time to curl."

But she wouldn't be adverse to hitting the ice to a fist-pumping rock tune, just like fighters in the UFC. "I've never come out to rock music. That would be fun, too," she conceded. "If they did both (pipers and rockers) that would be cool."

And if you've been wondering how passionate these curlers are about the chance to represent their country, let me leave you with this: When the emotion of her rink's loss just minutes before finally hit, Cary-Anne turned away, covered her face and began shedding silent tears.

"It's OK," the rising curling star from Alberta said when a crusty newspaper columnist asked how she was doing. "It's all good. It wasn't our week and that's fine. One day it will be and that will be great."

And you can bet your kilt, when that day comes, someone will be there playing the pipes.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 5, 2013 A2

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