How’s this for a brilliant mistake?
In 2007, Arnold Asham, founder of Asham Curling Supplies, a specialty retail outlet currently celebrating its 40th anniversary, became one of the sponsors of the Czech Republic’s national women’s curling team. In addition to brooms and footwear, Asham supplied the squad, which had qualified for the World Women’s Curling Championship for the first time ever, with patches bearing his company logo.
The four-inch-square swaths were originally intended for the players’ warm-up jackets. So imagine his surprise when he tuned in that March to cheer the ladies on and spotted his brand name on their pant legs, just below the knee, instead. How did that happen, he wondered; did their seamstress misunderstand his instructions? That’s when he realized having the patches displayed in such an unusual manner was actually better for business: Every time one of the Czech players settled into the hack to line up a shot, the camera zoomed in on them and, in the process, his business tag.
"If you’re a fan of some of the bigger-name curlers we’re involved with, people like Chelsea Carey and Brad Gushue, you’ll notice Asham just below their knee, as Dad eventually had that trademarked," says Amanda Asham, who together with her siblings Nathan and Kate, is largely responsible for the day-to-day operation of the store, located at 700 McPhillips St.
"It’s the same thing with shoulder patches. Dad used to put the Asham name on the chest of our jackets, a bit like a hockey crest. But then he began to notice that during TV interviews, they almost always showed the curlers from the shoulders up, so you couldn’t make out whose jacket they were wearing. To get around that, he moved the name of our business up, too."
Asham, founder of the World Curling Players Association and 2015 inductee into the Manitoba Curling Hall of Fame in the builder category, admits it’s sometimes hard to believe his name has become synonymous with the roaring game. One of eight siblings, born dirt-poor in Reedy Creek, 170 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, he didn’t pick up a curling rock for the first time until he was in his teens, and even then, only at the insistence of a neighbour desperate for someone to play.
"I was 13 or 14 when this fellow Archie Moore called me up, telling me they were short a player and did I want to play lead," says Asham, reached by phone in Mexico, near Mazatlán, where he’s currently vacationing. "I said, ‘First of all, I have no money to play,’ to which Archie responded, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll pay your way.’ Then I said I had no way to get to the (curling) club, which was in Alonsa, about 10 miles away. He said, ‘Not a problem, he’d give me a ride.’ So I tagged along and to make a long story short, totally fell in love with the game."
In 1977, Asham was on the ice at the St. Vital Curling Club when he spotted a person a sheet over from him wearing shoes equipped with a slider that looked markedly different from the Teflon sliders everybody else was employing at the time. After asking a few questions, Asham learned the material, called Red Brick, was manufactured in Germany. The fellow had acquired a small quantity through his workplace and told Asham if he was interested in having it applied to his shoes, too, he had a bit extra.
"He said he’d charge me $50 but because that was the equivalent of about $500 back then, and because the job he did on his own shoes was a bit... crude, I said ‘That’s OK, maybe I’d try doing it myself.’ "
At the time, Asham was working for the provincial government as a geologist. Through his job, he had access to tools that could cut a supply of Red Brick he ordered from Europe precisely, so that it fit perfectly on the underside of his shoes. Not only was it highly functional, it turned out to be more durable than Teflon, a pair of factors that quickly caught the attention of his fellow curlers.
"I did it some for friends, then friends of friends and the next thing I knew, guys like Terry Braunstein and Billy Walsh Jr., people who’d represented Manitoba at the Brier, were getting in touch, asking me to do their shoes, as well," he says, adding that was when he decided to go big or go home, investing close to $16,000 in 500 brand new pairs of shoes, which he would customize in his house by affixing Red Brick to the bottoms, then attempt to sell in curling clubs and pro shops throughout Western Canada.
"I sold 750 pairs in 1978, 2,800 pairs in ’79 and in 1980, the year I opened my store, I sold 8,000 pairs. We haven’t looked back since."
Initially, Asham Curling Supplies was located in a tight, 300-square-foot space just off the living room of the Asham family home on McPhillips Street. Amanda says her father began thinking about alternative arrangements in the early 1980s, following an encounter between the two of them.
"He tells the story of when I was little, maybe four or five, how he was working a ton, going up and down the stairs from his basement workshop to the store part of the house," she says. "One afternoon as he was walking past I asked if he would play with me. He said, ‘No, my girl, I’m busy.’ To which I replied, ‘Can you at least look at me when you go by?’ That made him decide it was time to move the business part-of-things outside the house."
Nowadays, Asham Curling Supplies, one of a handful of stores in the world exclusively dedicated to curling, is often as much of a tourist destination as Assiniboine Park or The Forks, for travellers to Winnipeg.
Kate, dubbed "the director of first impressions" owing to the amount of time she spends on the sales floor, says it’s not unusual to ask customers where they’re from and be told Australia, Japan... even the Arabian Peninsula. (Somewhere in her laptop Amanda has photos of women members of the Qatar Curling Federation wearing hijabs, the neck portions of which are neatly tucked inside their red and white Asham curling jackets.)
"It’s funny how many times I’ve heard somebody say they just arrived in town and this was their first stop," Kate says, noting their store sometimes plays host to entire busloads of tourists, folks who are popping in to pick up the latest gadgetry.
About that: Nathan, a competitive curler in his own right, says you never know what their father is going to think of next. Besides inventing the rotator sole 15 years ago, an innovation he and his sisters refer to as a device that revolutionized the game, their dad is also responsible for novelty items such as silicone cake molds shaped like curling rocks, onesies for newborns bearing the phrase "future rockstar" and — our favourite — inflatable curling rock hats, a steal at $19.99.
"After close to 60 years in the game, it’s safe to say Dad’s thought of everything," Nathan says with a chuckle. "Whenever he starts a sentence, ‘What about...?’ the rest of us lean back in our chairs, preparing for what’s coming next."
Chelsea Carey, the reigning Canadian women’s curling champion, figures she was 12 or 13 when she slipped on a pair of Asham curling shoes for the first time. The only reason she waited so long, she says, is Asham didn’t make shoes her size when she first took up the sport.
"At the time, Arnold would have been sponsoring my father (Dan Carey), who was at the height of his own competitive career in the ’90s, so Dad took me to the store to get outfitted," she says when reached at home in Calgary, where she’s lived since 2014.
Carey, whose rink has been sponsored by Asham for several years, says it’s "huge" to be associated with the Winnipeg-run company.
"Obviously you always want to support local and even though I don’t live in Winnipeg anymore, Asham is still local as far as I’m concerned," says Carey, also the winner of the 2016 Scotties Tournament of Hearts. "As a team, we wear their pants and mitts and personally, I wear their shoes because I much prefer their heel slider to other ones on the market."
Now that she calls Alberta home, Carey doesn’t get down to the McPhillips store as much as she’d like, though she did pay a visit last summer with a special "guest" in tow, the Scotties trophy.
(No word if Carey’s fans hurried hard to the store, after the Ashams let people know she was in the house through their Twitter account.)
Back in Mexico. Arnold remarks, "That’s a good question," when asked if he thinks his store would have still been a success 40 years down the road if he had opened in a city other than Winnipeg.
'Back home all you do is invoice, invoice, invoice, but when you get out there and see just how prominent our brand is all over the world, it's a little humbling, to say the least' — local curling impressario Arnold Asham
"Winnipeg is perfect because not only is it in the centre of the country and centre of the continent, it’s also the curling capital of the world," he says, adding 40 years ago, he couldn’t have foreseen the day non-curlers would shop at his store, looking for the style of jacket worn by one of their curling heroes, much in the way Jets fans pick up jerseys bearing the name Scheifele or Wheeler.
"It’s really worked out well. In December, I was in Japan where I was coaching their national women’s team and it’s still a thrill to have people come up to me, holding their broom or whatever and saying ‘ASH-am, ASH-am.’ Back home all you do is invoice, invoice, invoice, but when you get out there and see just how prominent our brand is all over the world, it’s a little humbling, to say the least."
David Sanderson writes about Winnipeg-centric restaurants and businesses.
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.
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