July 8, 2020

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Between a rock and a safe place

Curling clubs await direction on changes about how to play during a pandemic

Curling will face some changes when players get back on the ice, and modifications could have a significant effect on the sport.

In Manitoba, clubs will need to include new health and safety guidelines into their business plans for the start of the 2020-21 season — assuming there is a season — owing to the coronavirus pandemic.

All team sports have, or will, undergo some alterations in the COVID-19 world to protect participants, and curling — overtly social, both on and off the ice — is no exception. Curling Canada, the sport’s governing body in this country, has promised to deliver return-to-play guidelines in the next few weeks.

Some of the changes won’t be subtle, either, hints Danny Lamoureux, Curling Canada’s director of club development and event operation. A couple of them deal with sweeping — specifically when players' heads are close together as they bear down to scrub a rock — scenarios when it's impossible to adhere to physical distancing.

Curling Canada has proposed to clubs that just one player from the throwing team sticks close to the rock and sweeps, and also the skip from the non-throwing team is prohibited from sweeping any rock behind the T-line of the house and must stay at the hack, thus avoiding a some heavy, face-to-face breathing.

There's been little pushback.

Curling Canada has proposed just one player from the throwing team sweeps, and the skip from the non-throwing team is prohibited from sweeping any rock behind the T-line of the house and must stay at the hack. (Tim Smith / The Brandon Sun files)

Curling Canada has proposed just one player from the throwing team sweeps, and the skip from the non-throwing team is prohibited from sweeping any rock behind the T-line of the house and must stay at the hack. (Tim Smith / The Brandon Sun files)

"In all likelihood (permitting just one player to sweep down a sheet) would be adopted (at all national championships) unless health authorities say it’s not an issue. But I can’t see it. Their heads are literally a foot apart for 130 feet," says Lamoureux.

"We also don’t need that interaction between the two skips in the back of the house, each fighting to sweep rocks."

Suppose they staged a Brier and no one came...

Could a Scotties or Brier be staged in a cavernous arena without fans in the seats, or should the marquee events be moved to a curling club setting to limit the chance of COVID-19 exposure? 

It's a question Curling Canada isn't ready to address, at least publicly. But it's no secret paying customers are critical to the bottom line for any city hosting a major curling event as well as the country's organizing body.

 

Could a Scotties or Brier be staged in a cavernous arena without fans in the seats, or should the marquee events be moved to a curling club setting to limit the chance of COVID-19 exposure? 

It's a question Curling Canada isn't ready to address, at least publicly. But it's no secret paying customers are critical to the bottom line for any city hosting a major curling event as well as the country's organizing body.

The first weighty event of the season, the Canada Cup — an Olympic Trials qualifier — remains scheduled for late November inside the 3,200-seat Aitken University Centre in Fredericton. Following that, the Continental Cup is set for January in Oakville, Ont., the Scotties national women's championship goes Feb. 20-28 in Thunder Bay and the Brier national men's championship is scheduled for Kelowna, March 6-14.

Shannon Birchard, who tosses second stones on the Kerri Einarson foursome from Gimli, says players thrive on the excitement generating inside a packed arena.

"It's going to be a change. The crowd are always very positive at curling events. Watching us brings people a lot of joy, and I know curling teams also love the fan contact that we get, meeting new people from across Canada and the world," says Birchard.

"So, that would be difficult to adjust to, but at the same time, given the circumstances, everybody's going to embrace the new normal and, in the long run, if we're lucky enough to play the game we should just be very grateful for that.

"We just hope that things can return to normal in the next few seasons, maybe not right away."

For now, planning focuses on regular programming, even as the coronovirus pandemic continues and attention is beginning to turn to when curling might resume and what that might look like.

"Our planning is based on everything being good to go. That’s the only way we can move ahead," Danny Lamoureux, Curling Canada’s director of club development and event operation, says. "The only way it made sense was to plan to be in full operation, and if at some point the government tells us 'X,' we follow suit."

He says curling simply isn't in the same ballpark as big-league sports, which have all proposed spectators be kept out to stem the spread of COVID-19.

"I’d love everything to be fully on board this year. There is a potential to run events without fans but it’s expensive for the sport of curling. We’re not Major League Baseball or the NBA, where there’s huge amounts of money to do this. Without ticket revenue, we’re in a difficult situation," he says. 

"Even though we have major-league coverage and TV numbers, we just don’t have that kind of ability to run an event without fans. But, obviously, we’re going to investigate everything possible from here until the end of the season.

"Kingston (in March) and St. John’s (2017) a few years ago, it was electric in those buildings, and without fans it’s going to be dead-quiet."

Several marquee events of the 2019-20 season had to be scrapped because of the health crisis, such as the world men’s championship in Scotland and world women’s championship in Prince George, B.C. Einarson won the Scotties in Moose Jaw, Sask., in February but missed out on a chance to represent Canada at the worlds in March.

The team is slated to defend its Canadian title in Thunder Bay.

jason.bell@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @WFPJasonBell

Off the ice, clubs must implement other changes. Locker rooms will stay locked, and players must arrive for games wearing masks and curling attire, no earlier than 15 minutes before a draw. No extra ends will be played to keep games to two hours, and handshakes will be banned before and after games.

Equipment such as rocks and measuring sticks that are frequently touched will need to be repeatedly sanitized. Curlers will be allowed to doff their masks when games begin.

Darren Needham, president of the Fort Garry Curling Club, says precautionary measures are on the agenda during a committee meeting next week.

"Preventing the spread of COVID-19 is definitely what matters most for next season," says Needham, whose club boasts about 800 members. "There are a lot of things to consider moving forward, but we’re staying really positive that we can do the right things and play this season.

Locker rooms will stay locked, and players such as Kerri Einarson, her teammates and opponents must arrive for games wearing masks and curling attire, no earlier than 15 minutes before a draw. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Locker rooms will stay locked, and players such as Kerri Einarson, her teammates and opponents must arrive for games wearing masks and curling attire, no earlier than 15 minutes before a draw. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press files)

"Our club was really moving things in the right direction as far as our membership. It had been going down the last few years but then we really flattened out and even saw some growth. So, having an interruption like this isn’t good news."

The reality is memberships could decrease as curlers, particularly seniors who are most vulnerable to infectious diseases, choose to step away from the game. Revenue from restaurants and bars could take a hit. Costs will, undoubtedly, rise as clubs work to assure patrons’ safety by sanitizing and deep-cleaning their premises.

The approximately 100 recognized clubs in Manitoba need to figure out if they can either make it work or leave the ice plant unplugged and the lights turned off for a year — or longer, depending on when a vaccine is available.

Craig Baker, executive director of Curl Manitoba, has faith most, if not all, will stick it out and make the necessary adjustments.

"I firmly believe every club that wants to and is able to will be able to pull it off. Manitoba has curling so ingrained in us that I think people involved with their clubs will do whatever it takes to get it back up and going," Baker says.

"Seeing the way some of the sports are going right now — the spring and summer sports — curling is well on its way to be able to get up and going next season. I’m not saying there won’t be changes. But we’ll be able to enjoy the sport that we all love to play and watch."

The guidelines to be adopted by clubs here will be released jointly by Curling Canada and Curl Manitoba, and must get the blessing of provincial health officials.

Equipment such as rocks and measuring sticks that are frequently touched will need to be repeatedly sanitized. (Kyle Darbyson / The Brandon Sun files)

Equipment such as rocks and measuring sticks that are frequently touched will need to be repeatedly sanitized. (Kyle Darbyson / The Brandon Sun files)

Just north of Winnipeg, the president of the Stonewall Curling Club says his board is eagerly awaiting some direction from the provincial and national curling associations.

Stu Brown said people have changed their habits the past couple of months and most will simply roll with the punches during the curling season.

"We are cautiously optimistic that we will be able to proceed with, obviously, not a completely normal season, but a season nonetheless. Based on restrictions and guidelines in the province right now, we feel as long as things don’t take a step back we should be able to go ahead with a relatively normal start to the season," he says.

"Our bar area is a large, and at 50 per cent capacity... the club has the space for people to keep their distance. But on the ice, we’ll be looking for some help on how to proceed."

Lamoureux says he’s had regular virtual meetings with an informal committee comprising several club managers from across the country "to get some on-the-ground information."

The group focused on three tasks to help ensure clubs slide out of the hack in the fall with a solid delivery of league play, junior instructional camps and bonspiels: funding opportunities for clubs to access; return-to-play guidelines; and, marketing strategies to draw members back.

A sizable chunk of the plan to get curlers throwing again contains similar information to the return-to-play protocols of other sports such as baseball, football and basketball.

"Hand-washing, social distancing, all those things that are now common to everyone in the country," says Lamoureux. "The difference is the 25 per cent that happens in the field of play in a curling club. We’ve come up with some really good guidelines, and we feel comfortable we can prove to a health authority that we can have eight people on every sheet of ice in a curling club in Canada."

jason.bell@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @WFPJasonBell

Jason Bell

Jason Bell
Assistant sports editor

Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).

Read full biography

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