Tyler McGurry had some big shoes to fill, and he better bring shoes equipped with sliders and grippers.
The first day the phys-ed teacher started at Prince Edward School in the fall, he was bombarded with questions from students about whether the Munroe West school would carry on its on-site curling tradition.
"Day one I walk in and all I hear is, ‘Are we doing the curling rink this year?’" recalls McGurry, who teaches gym classes for all 140 kindergarten to Grade 5 students at the school.
"Everyone knows we have the nice curling rink and we take a lot of pride in that, so I didn’t want to be the person who stopped doing that. And also, why wouldn’t I want to do it? It is awesome."
Years ago, interschool bonspiels on blacktop sheets were more commonplace, but Prince Edward now has one of only two on-site rinks in the division, and possibly the entire city.
Throughout its history, and for — at least — the last 30 years in a row, the school in the River East Transcona School Division has turned its grounds into a rink equipped with painted rings and granite rocks for students and community members to use.
Principal Kai Jacob learned to curl against neighbouring school teams on the grounds when he attended Prince Edward in the late 1970s. His best guess about the decline of school rinks is that long-time rink builders have retired while time-consuming preparation has deterred teachers.
Over the years, the Brazier Street rink has become "a nice signature on our school," as well as a way to encourage students to try a new sport, Jacob said. The rink often defeats wind chill to win over students to exercise in the wintertime.
“Everyone knows we have the nice curling rink and we take a lot of pride in that, so I didn’t want to be the person who stopped doing that. And also, why wouldn’t I want to do it? It is awesome.” – Tyler McGurry, phys-ed teacher started at Prince Edward School
Dressed in snowpants and tuques to brave minus 25C on Thursday, Grade 3 and 4s practiced sliding out of makeshift dents in the ice, which curlers call hacks.
CJ, a Grade 4 student, said she keeps warm by sweeping her classmates’ rocks. "I like being skip and sweeper," she said, the nine-year-old's cheeks still rosy after gym class.
A classmate, Axel, said curling is his favourite winter sport at school. This year, the Grade 3 student drew to the button — a curling feat he said made him feel "pretty proud"; it was celebrated with high fives in the schoolyard.
"It’s a great opportunity to go outside, have fun, get some exercise and really work on your social, emotional learning skills — being a good teammate and being cooperative," McGurry said, adding he teaches students about targets, curling shots and game strategy.
Every day for 14 days, starting in the late fall, McGurry worked on the rink for 45 minutes, with help from students and the former rink builder, who retired last year and has since mentored him so the tradition carries on. It requires building boards, flooding and painting lines.
The school’s operating budget covers costs, which are minimal since they already have a collection of rocks, brooms and an adjusted hose.
It's programs like the one at Prince Edward that Curl Manitoba attributes, in part, to a growing number of junior curlers in the province. After years of stagnant numbers, the association has recorded a steady incline of curlers aged 17 and younger in recent years.
As of April 2019, there were 3,000 registered junior curlers in Manitoba, up about 15 per cent from the previous season.
"Anytime a school wants to focus on your sport, it’s always a good thing," said Craig Baker, executive director of Curl Manitoba.
Baker said some schools often engage students in the sport in other ways, whether it be field trips to local rinks or using gym-friendly curling equipment, such as rocks powered by wheels and mat targets.
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.