Warren Johnson was a competitive curler for two decades, but bad knees forced him to give it up in the mid-1980s.
It wasn’t until about five years ago that the St. Vital resident got back on the ice, when he heard about a new variation of the game called stick curling.
Using a long stick, which attaches to the rock’s handle, players can throw the rocks from a standing position, with the same rotation as if they were using their fingers.
"I had heard about it, but I didn’t really know anyone else in it," Johnson said. "Some of the guys I golf with were talking about getting back into curling, so I gave it a shot and I like it."
Johnson usually uses his stick to play in a regular curling league, but sometimes he’ll enter a bonspiel with modified rules just for stick curlers.
Along with partner Alf Ramsey, he recently won the Ernie Oliver Stick Spiel at the Assiniboine Memorial Curling Club. The event featured 32 teams of two, and was named in honour of the man who helped popularize the sport in Winnipeg back in the middle of the last decade.
Oliver, who also lives in St. Vital, made some changes to the rules to make stick curling faster and more sociable.
The games are only six ends, and each team uses only six rocks. The two players alternate each end between skipping and throwing, so they never need to leave their end of the ice. You can sweep your partner’s rocks from the hog line, and your opponent’s rocks from the tee line.
"We can run two draws in the time of one," Oliver said. "You can’t come down to the other end to look at a shot. You can only come halfway two times during a game. It keeps the game speeded up."
Oliver said his variation of the sport has been growing by leaps and bounds in recent years. Winnipeg now has four stick curling leagues, which he estimates have contributed more than $100,000 to the revenues of cash-starving clubs (without even taking into account the food and drink that stick curlers consume).
"There’s a lot of people who can’t get down in the hack, or can’t sweep," Oliver said. "That’s what our sport’s all about. We even have some people that can play regular curling, but enjoy stick curling.
There’s no limitation of age or sex. It’s wide open."
Johnson is still somewhat of a traditionalist, so he isn’t going to be switching exclusively to stick curling anytime soon. He prefers eight ends to six, as it’s tougher to recover from a bad start. But he knows without the stick he wouldn’t be competing in any form of the game.
"I couldn’t curl without it," he said.