Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Scotties puts curling on map in Quebec

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MONTREAL -- So today ends the Scotties' first trip to Quebec, and at first blush there's a whole lot to like about holding it in La Belle Province.

For instance, the layers of Montreal are deep, a colour study in life even through the snow that blanketed the streets. The Tournament of Hearts' facility, the Maurice Richard Arena, is quirky and charming, though it has a few shortcomings (more on that in a moment). At the venue's player entrance, a looming bronze statue of the Rocket himself welcomed curlers into the embrace of the dome. The ice was bang-on. The crowds, when they came out, were warm.

And for the most part, the 2014 show ran smoothly, staffed by an energetic troop of over 400 volunteers. These were mostly avid curlers who've been throwing away at the sport for years, keeping it alive in a province where it has a far weaker foothold than the granite-happy Prairies: "Ummm," was the most common response when we asked volunteers about the curling scene on this part of the St. Lawrence River.

"If nothing else, it's introduced curling to Montreal," said Scotties co-chairwoman Francine Poisson, after Saturday's thrilling semifinal. "What I take away from this event is, there's a core group in Montreal that can certainly host events. I think we've done a pretty good job. Could we have done some things differently? For sure. But it's put Montreal on the map of curling."

Oh, of course a reporter will ask to pause on those things that could have been done differently. Poisson nods, and offered this: The event didn't sell itself enough to Montreal's dominant French community, she said. The marketing plan was set by the Canadian Curling Association, and Poisson thinks they could have done more to expand the sport's reach in the francophone world.

There were other challenges. The Maurice Richard Arena has no room for a party, so the HeartStop Lounge -- you know, "the patch" -- had to be moved to a gymnasium up the street. That facility didn't have a restaurant, so they were limited to selling things that could go in a toaster, or be served cold. And -- according to some Scotties vets -- the turnout didn't compare to the rollicking patches that spring up at some events.

Indeed, attendance for the whole week didn't exactly smash projections, though there were robust crowds for the opening weekend, some of the week's draws and the semifinal game. After that last one -- which drew 2,639 fans -- the event sat at 33,941 through the week. Organizers decided not to set specific expectations. The last time Montreal hosted a ladies' curling championship was 1979, before it was the Scotties, and it was too different back then to guess.

Most importantly, those fans and curling-curious who came out will have entertaining memories to take away.

There was the flu bug that cavorted through the field, causing handshakes to be replaced by the more antiseptic elbow-tap as the preferred sportswoman-like conduct of these games. There was the coming-out party for British Columbia skip Kesa Van Osch, only 22, who was so nervous to enter her first media scrum she brought a friend along for moral support. Any nerves in front of the cameras vanished on the sheet. B.C. finished a solid 6-5 on the week.

And it was a delightful debut, too, for Yukon's Sarah Koltun, who at just 20 years old was one of the youngest skips ever to set foot on national women's championship ice, and became something of a media darling for her talent and her rosy-cheeked youth. And then there were the sing-song cheers from the stands -- "Mani-TOOOOO-baaaa," "Al-BEERRRRRRR-taaaa" -- and the gasps of the crowd, and the rumble of rocks on the ice.

So those memories have risen out of the Scotties' first stay in Quebec. Will it be back? "I hope so," Poisson said, with a smile.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 9, 2014 B11

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