The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

No complaints from Canadian curlers despite empty seats at Scotties

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MONTREAL - The abundance of empty seats at the Maurice Richard Arena would suggest the Scotties Tournament of Hearts has been a box office flop.

But Canadian curling officials aren't complaining.

That's because no one expected the capacity crowds that curling draws in the sport's western Canadian hotbeds.

"We're aware curling doesn't have the popularity it has in other parts of Canada and to bring an event here that we'd be struggling to get people in the seats," said Warren Hansen, the Canadian Curling Association's director of event operations. "We didn't expect this to be overwhelming in any way, shape or form."

It isn't.

The round-robin portion of the nine-day tournament, split into 17 draws, drew a total of 26,684 spectators. That's an average of over 1,500 per draw in a building that seats 4,750.

Attendance is expected to pick up for the playoffs on the weekend, but the final figure will be a far cry from the 154,688 who attended the 1998 Scotties in Regina. Or even the 65,000 last year in Kingston, Ont.

The final figure will likely be around 35,000.

"We're looking at 2,500 to 3,000 per game for the weekend, and we could hit 4,000, especially with the (Rachel) Homan team (from Ottawa) doing as well as they are," said Hansen. "Last year in Kingston, we did well the final three days.

"A large number of people came down from Ottawa. So I think it will be fine."

It would be more profitable to hold the Scotties only in cities where curling is popular. But the CCA likes to move it around the country.

The tournament hadn't been in Quebec since 1979, and Hansen said the event's title sponsor, Montreal-based Kruger Products, wanted it in its home province. Montreal and Quebec City were asked to make bids.

The empty spaces haven't bothered the curlers.

"We didn't expect it to be well attended," said Manitoba skip Chelsea Carey. "We'd love it if it was.

"It's way more fun to play in front of a full house than in front of empty seats. But it's actually better than I thought."

The sport has slowly been growing in recent years in Quebec, but it hasn't reached the popularity or media coverage it receives in provinces like Manitoba or Saskatchewan. Next year's event in Moose Jaw, Sask., is expected to draw big crowds.

"There's a bit of difference in Quebec where it's not as engrained in the culture as it is in western Canada and the Maritimes," said Carey. "And there's also big cities.

"Winnipeg, Edmonton, even Calgary are really curling towns, but in Toronto or Vancouver you'd probably see similar attendance."

Indeed. In 1997 the event, then called the Scott Tournament of Hearts, drew 35,000 spectators in Vancouver.

The fans who have turned out here have been into it, especially when Quebec's Allison Ross was on the ice. Unfortunately, the Ross team went 2-9 to finish tied for last with the Yukon.

But the Ross rink received a big ovation after beating Ontario in its final game.

"It's been really fun, but I feel bad at the same time," said Ross. "I wish I gave them more to cheer for."

Ross said the event may have been better attended if it was held in the suburbs than in the city's east end.

"It's hard to have a tournament like this in a big city," she said. "And it's part of being in Quebec to. It's not a huge curling province."

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