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Curling conquers Vegas

Roaring Game makes big noise in Sin City

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/1/2014 (1313 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

LAS VEGAS -- There's drinking. There's gambling. There's carousing.

And that's just what's been going on inside the Orleans Arena this week.

Three sheets are rocking at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas this week as curlers take Sin City by storm. Thousands of Canadian fans flew south to watch Continental Cup action.


Three sheets are rocking at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas this week as curlers take Sin City by storm. Thousands of Canadian fans flew south to watch Continental Cup action.

Winnipeg's Jennifer Jones and her Sochi-bound team are kicking back in Sin City between events.

Winnipeg's Jennifer Jones and her Sochi-bound team are kicking back in Sin City between events.

What would a sporting event in Vegas be without the sign girls?

What would a sporting event in Vegas be without the sign girls?

It should come as a surprise to no one that a sport long known for its vices -- the Canadian men's curling championship has been alternately named after a beer company and a cigarette company and what is a bonspiel, really, than just a bunch of curlers gambling for their own money? -- has been a huge hit here in Sin City this week.

As for the carousing? Well, let's just say there's a reason mixed bonspiels have always been so popular and curlers tend to marry other curlers.

And so little wonder the crowds at the Orleans Hotel for this week's Continental Cup -- curling's version of the Ryder Cup -- have already exceeded organizers' wildest expectations.

With over 21,887 spectators through the first five draws alone, this event is already well on its way to becoming the best attended curling event ever held in the United States, eclipsing even the attendance for the hugely popular curling event at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, which was 96.7 per cent sold out and attracted a total of 40,572 spectators for a much longer event.

And the only people who seem to be loving this event more this week than the fans are the competitors.

"They call it Sin City for a reason," Jeff Stoughton second Reid Carruthers mused between games Friday.

"They've got it all here. It's a crazy combination. And we're having a blast."

Like all good ideas, it seems like a no-brainer in retrospect, right? Put curling in Vegas -- the curlers will love it and the fans will come out of the woodwork. Simple, right?

In reality, the idea had been on the drawing board for at least a decade, first floated in any serious way by current USA Curling COO Rick Patzke.

It took forever for it all to come together, however.

"We talked for a long, long time about putting this event somewhere in the United States," said CCA events director Warren Hansen.

"And there were differing opinions about where in the U.S. it should go. But I was always firm it should be here. Because if it was going to work it had to be in a place that was unique and would attract Canadians."

Still, there's no such thing as a sure bet in this city and organizers went all-in on this one, gambling real money that a quirky event with quirky sub-events like mixed doubles, that has traditionally been held in small centres like Medicine Hat, Alta., would not get lost here in the bright lights of the Las Vegas Strip.

They need not have worried. While this week's Continental Cup has traded being the big fish in a small pond on the Canadian Prairies for something quite the opposite this week, the quirkiness of staging a major international curling event in the desert has been, among other things, catnip for major American news outlets.

The New York Times and Wall Street Journal have both had reporters here this week and a crew from NBC has also been here and will be airing some of the competition on the big network via tape delay.

Suffice to say, the Times never made it to Penticton, B.C., where the Continental Cup was held last year. Nor did NBC. Or the Journal.

Now, it also helps that all of this is taking place in an Olympic year, with nine of the 12 teams competing here -- including Winnipeg's Jennifer Jones -- using this as a final tune-up before they head to Sochi next month.

Jones said the light-hearted collegial atmosphere that comes with a low-stakes event that pits six teams from North America against six teams from the rest of the world is exactly what her team needed in the lead-up to the pressure cooker that will be Sochi.

"It's a perfect tune-up before the Olympics," Jones said. "It's our first time playing since we won the Trials (in December at the MTS Centre). And it's great because we can play some games in a really relaxed atmosphere. And you can work on some things that you maybe want to try out, but where winning and losing maybe doesn't matter as much.

"It's ideal -- we get arena ice conditions, big crowds and it's so much fun."

Now, while this event is already being hailed as a major breakthrough for curling in the United States, the facts are the majority of the fans taking in the draws have been Canadians.

The Canadian Curling Association aggressively marketed this event as part of a larger vacation package and completely sold out not only their allotment of 1,200 rooms at the Orleans hotel, but also another 600 rooms they had set aside at a sister property.

So yeah, major curling events now work in the United States -- just so long as you can convince thousands of Canadians to make the trip south to attend.

And also as long as you don't mind sticking your event into what is decidedly a down market Vegas property. The Orleans is miles from the Strip, very much showing its age and across the street from a sex toy supermarket. (Although, to be fair, pretty much everything in Vegas is across the street from a sex toy supermarket.)

There's always been a tension in Vegas between kitschy and cool and the Orleans definitely leans to the former. But hey, so does curling and so it has proven to be a match made in heaven.

The hotel has been turned into curling central. The event logo is everywhere on the property and curling highlights run steady on the big screen marquee outside. So committed is Orleans management to making this event work, they even allowed their casino to be brought to a standstill Wednesday night, as slots players put down their cups and coins to clap along as bagpipers paraded the curlers through the casino as part of a one-of-a-kind opening ceremonies.

And then there's the lounge act at the Orleans this weekend -- none other than Winnipeg's Burton Cummings, who is sure to be a favourite in a hotel jammed with curling fans, most of them from Western Canada and almost all of them of an age where they probably still have an eight-track of American Woman lying around somewhere.

The Orleans Arena, where the actual curling is taking place, is normally the home of the ECHL's Las Vegas Wranglers.

It's a 7,500-seat venue that, despite its location in the desert, is near perfect for staging big curling events -- complete with a powerful ice plant, the ideal horseshoe seating configuration and zero per cent humidity.

Humidity, of course, is the bane of every curling icemaker's existence, creating frost on the ice that makes for tough playing conditions. But without humidity to worry about in the Nevada desert, Gimli icemaker Hans Wuthrich -- who will also make the Olympic ice in Sochi -- said his job has been easy.

"The building is fabulous -- it's perfect for this kind of event," said Wuthrich, who added he hasn't been lonely this week either.

"There's at least 20 people from Gimli down here to watch the curling. At least 20 -- I'm not kidding."

Put that many Canadian curling fans in this kind of environment, it's little wonder someone like Winnipeg's Stoughton -- who's one of the three non-Olympic teams here -- is feeling a little like Vegas crooner Wayne Newton.

While no women have yet thrown their underwear at Stoughton -- well, at least no more than usual -- the 50-year-old Canadian curling icon said he's gotten a flavour this week for what it's like to be a star on the Strip.

"It takes us forever just to walk through the hotel because everyone is stopping us, just wanting to talk or take pictures or whatever. Even on the elevators, there's always someone who recognizes us," said Stoughton.

"It's pretty cool. I never thought I'd be recognized in Vegas, but it's happening constantly." Twitter: @PaulWiecek

Read more by Paul Wiecek.


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