Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Curling action inspires, amazes

First-time Scotties reporter soaks up the atmosphere

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MONTREAL -- Something about being surrounded by these women, at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts, something about all eyes on four dozen ladies sliding down the ice.

Maybe there aren't quite enough of those eyes, at least not here, underneath the faded dome of Maurice Richard Arena.

The place rose up loud and rowdy on the weekend, as fans heckled the home team's opponents. As the spirit of the Canadian women's curling championship surged forward, and good-natured wink-wink rivalries fomented.

Since then the crowds have dwindled, with the morning draws mostly shrunk to clusters of contenders' friends and families. They are bundled up in team jackets. They are so proud. They tape provincial flags to the railings and nobody comes by to take 'em down.

Still, the turnout is better than Manitoba skip Chelsea Carey expected it to be, and curling draws well on TSN. So out there, beyond the grasp of the chilled-up St. Lawrence River, hundreds of thousands of curling fans are watching these women play.

For five days now I have done the same on this, my first trip to the Scotties, and these women are an inspiration, more powerful to see them assembled in the flesh even than on the screen.

I am a daughter of the 1980s -- so maybe this has changed? -- but growing up I saw mostly men in the spotlight, and men on the stage, with women usually kept cheering from the sidelines. Holding pompoms maybe, holding signs -- friend of the band, fan of the team. That was me.

What I'm saying is there's something amazing about sitting just above the ice, while 32 women play in each draw, strategize and sweep.

Let's be honest, most of these games will not be classics of curling. The Scotties is spinning a wobbly top of parity.

Here is what we've learned so far this week: Rachel Homan and her team are scary good, prowling like sharks on pebbled ice.

Best advice would be to stay out of their way, they bite, but if you have no choice switch to Plan B: Be Saskatchewan's Stefanie Lawton, or Manitoba's Carey, who along with Alberta's Val Sweeting are skips a cut above the rest.

That's no surprise, everyone expected the biggest challenges to Team Canada to come from the mostly landlocked West.

Here is what I did not expect: How the gaze is lifted up from the ice, and up to where Maurice Richard Arena looks like a bowl upended over Montreal's Olympic Park.

How the dome of its ceiling is painted midnight blue, sucking in the light. Like a planetarium. Like a night sky, if the stars dangled rigging wires and the moon was dotted by burned-out bulbs.

When you've had enough of looking at that, you shuffle across a snowbound parking lot to the HeartStop Lounge, named sugar-cute in tribute to the title sponsor.

Also known as Le Salon de Coeurs. Also known as a gymnasium plunged in familial darkness late in the afternoon, salsa music percolating on the stereos and a rousing shuffleboard curling tournament going down.

Beer sloshing from plastic cups, friendly smiles being passed 'round.

Between draws, or maybe after draws, curlers emerge from the crowd, bundled up in long, black Scotties parkas.

Whispers serenade them through. "Le Manitoba," two fans murmured to each other when Carey third Kristy McDonald wandered out. Around the corner is the sponsor's lounge, a square of pebbled floor surrounded by a black curtain.

By Wednesday night, I still haven't passed beyond.

"No, it is for sponsors," a volunteer in a blue jacket says in careful English, and "you need ticket."

We're supposed to get them from someone, though I don't see her and at any rate, it hardly matters.

So much of a reporter's life is the eternal dance of who belongs past the rope, beyond the fence. Tolerated, sometimes even accepted, though never exactly welcomed in.

And then there is -- oh, the editors asked me to write a column about this: "What would you tell your friends about it?"

I would tell them how a first-time Scotties reporter finds the inspiration of these women weighted against the loneliness of an anxious anglo in Montreal.

How the wide smiles of the rink fade away and are replaced by the flickered eyebrows of cashiers. By the panicked squeak of your tattered French, the musical rhythms of the language eluding you and the vocabulary, well, a blank end.

"Je ne parle..." you croak out in a tiny whispers, a million times a day, and "ummmmm, tu parles anglais, s'il vous plait."

There's a sadness to that rhythm, that only the thrill of watching these powerful women claim victory can cleanse away.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 6, 2014 D2

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