Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

When curlers hurry hard to the bar...

Alcohol, roarin' game go hand-in-hand, but sometimes things get out of hand

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CALGARY -- The roots of curling are planted, deep, in soil watered with alcohol.

The sponsors have long been beer companies, the social aspects so synonymous with the game are lubricated in booze and the sport's marquee spectator event, the Brier, is at least as much about the Brier Patch -- a massive 6,000-seat nearby beer hall this week -- as it is about the curling.

The players' lounge here is filled with unlimited free beer. And so too is the media lounge. Again -- unlimited. As in you can drink all you want and when it runs out, a beer fairy comes and fills the fridge back up again. All week long. For free.

One of the longest standing traditions at the Brier -- it turned 61 this week -- is Morning Classes, a Brier ritual, underwritten in the past by the Canadian Curling Association, that sees a local hotel room turned into an off-hours bar where the only drink served -- donations accepted -- is a gin and fresh lemon juice concoction said to have restorative properties. Classes are in session for only two hours every day -- from 7-9 a.m. And so to say alcohol consumption is an accepted part of curling is to grossly understate the case. It is actively encouraged, at even the highest levels of the sport. And to the degree it is ever raised as an issue -- which is seldom -- it is usually described with a smile and a wink and a tall tale about a forgotten weekend in places like Yorkton and Wainwright and Hibbing.

It's believed by many to be an integral part of the charm and fun of the sport. And, for the most part, alcohol in curling is just that -- fun.

But just as in real life, alcohol also has its dark side in curling and has left in its wake a long list of casualties -- promising curling careers that were ruined by booze, families that were broken apart by bad decisions made on the road due to booze and, in a few sad cases, entire lives ruined by booze.

All of which is why what is happening at the 2009 Tim Hortons Brier for Manitoba third Kevin Park is such a compelling story, a study in comebacks and redemption and the eternal hope that comes from the idea that you're never, ever too old to change.

It has been 14 long years since Park has played in this event -- and 18 years since a brash youngster burst onto the curling scene as the fire-throwing third for Alberta's Kevin Martin.

Park and Martin won the Brier that year but went their own ways soon afterward. The two have never really talked about why they broke up such a successful combination and Martin even today refers to Park as "an amazing thrower, an amazing athlete really," as he did Monday.

But what is known is that Park, now 44, and his drinking became legend throughout the 1990s and into the first five years of a new century, as he stumbled from one team to the next, showing occasional flashes but never again finding the form that got him to a worlds final in 1991.

Off the ice, seemingly everyone within the tight-knit curling community got to know at least one Park drinking story. Some were true, some were false, most were a combination of the two. But what became increasingly clear in Park's mind was the drinking had to stop -- and it had to stop while he still had his family, his job and his health.

And so three years ago, Park put down the bottle for the last time. He says today that he simply could no longer tolerate the crippling hangovers, which were getting increasingly worse. "As I progressed through my 20s, 30s and now into my 40s, those hangovers, they hit hard."

And then, having found sobriety, Park found something else -- his drive to be, once again, one of the world's elite curlers.

"I feel like there's some things I still want to do in this game," Park reflected Monday, on a day his Manitoba foursome smacked around Quebec and B.C. to improve to 4-1 and stay within a game of the leaders.

Park has been nothing short of spectacular this week and is a key reason his Manitoba team is near the top of the standings. He's shooting a blistering 90 per cent -- second among thirds -- and looks every bit like a man with a new lease on life.

"It does feel fresh," says Park. "Fourteen years away from the Brier and on a team like this, you don't do that every day. I made it to the worlds once and obviously I'd like to win one. I was so young when I went, I thought I'd just be back."

Eighteen years later, he's still trying. And he's doing it with a skip who perhaps knows more about boozing in curling than anyone else. Not, mind you, because Jeff Stoughton is a drinker -- he doesn't touch the stuff and never has.

And it's precisely for that reason that Stoughton has an almost uniquely clear perspective on alcohol and his sport. "There's obviously some people that have gone over the top too often, who have hurt their careers and their families because of them," Stoughton said.

"It's gotten a lot better in the last few years. It's become much more important for the top teams to be careful, with yourself and your teammates. There's just too much on the line now with the Olympics and funding and all of that.

"But the biggest problem still is what it's done to the families of some of the guys. That's still the biggest one."

Stoughton says he has no reservations about curling with Park -- but the two have an unstated, yet unequivocal, understanding.

"The decision with Kevin is if he's not drinking, that's who we wanted to get. And his word is golden to me. He's given me his word and he's never broken it and never will, as far as I'm concerned."

And if he does, if Park does start drinking again? Stoughton says he'd be off the team, but it would be the least of Park's problems.

"I've never had to say it, but he knows, he knows himself. And he knows he can't drink anymore. And I mean that from a personal perspective, not just in curling."

It's been a long and winding road back for Kevin Park. But it's straight and narrow now, with a clearly defined path to redemption here on the middle sheet Sunday evening.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 10, 2009 C3

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