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Matthew Bijl is trying to approach a return to the ice as just another bonspiel, yet he knows that’s not the case.
Competitive curlers are back in the hack this weekend in southern Manitoba as some of the province’s top junior teams participate in what’s being heralded as the first bonspiel in Canada since the COVID-19 crisis halted play five months ago.
It’s a Manitoba Junior Curling Tour event at the Morris Curling Club, with eight junior men’s teams and three junior women’s teams set to compete.
"We’re like the guinea pigs of the country. It’s exciting," Bijl, a 19-year-old Winnipegger, said Thursday. "There’s been no curling for a long time and it’s coming down to us to get it started. There’s probably going to be a lot of videoing of how the ends go, so people actually have something to see, not just what they’ve read."
The name alone — Cargill Curling Training Centre Spring Classic — suggests the event has been kind of a long time coming. Organizers made the difficult decision to postpone the bonspiel on March 13, just hours before the opening draw.
Bijl said there was a time early in the summer when he doubted there’d be a curling season of any kind.
"I was pretty worried it wasn’t going to happen. It’s seemed like it would be too hard to social distance on the ice because you’re always so close to not only your team but the opposing team, too," said the skip of the Stonewall-based team, with third Elias Huminicki, second Liam Wachal and lead Cyrus Brandt. "But we had a practice last week (in Morris) and did a couple of trial ends, how things should look with the new protocols, everything new to help us all stay safe.
"It’s going to be very different because no one’s used to it, yet. I’m not worried at all. We’re in good hands."
Lorne Hamblin, and his wife, Chris, both high-level curling coaches who volunteer their time to manage and teach at the training centre, have worked closely with Curling Canada to prepare for the bonspiel. The sport’s governing body released its return-to-play guidelines in early July, and they include significant alterations to sweeping and player positioning on the sheet, all part of ensuring physical distancing for the 2020-21 season.
The 29-page document, which appears on the Curling Canada website, covers topics including game play, facility cleanliness, food and beverage plans, customer awareness, financial planning, insurance and national championships.
The most notable changes involving game play include the use of one sweeper per team during games, no sweeping the opposition’s stone behind the tee-line, and new markings on ice for non-throwing team members to be stationed.
Those changes will be in effect this weekend in Morris
There will also be no shortage of sanitizing stations, teams will have plenty of room on the main and second levels to do their pre- and post-game meetings, and the use of masks will be encouraged when competitors are off the ice.
"It’s a great package from Curling Canada. The No. 1 thing is safety. What it’s designed for is eight people that haven’t seen each other all summer can come together, they social distance and stay six feet apart, so they can go back home and say, ‘We had our curling game and we did it in a new, safe environment,’" Lorne Hamblin said.
Albert Bazinet, coach of the Bijl foursome and chairman of the MJCT executive, said he’s thrilled young local curlers get to be the front-runners in the popular sport’s return to play.
"I’m just glad they’re getting back to playing. To me, it’s a test of the system. But what Chris and Lorne have done at the curling club has been phenomenal. It’s going to be a good start to the year," Bazinet said. "People are very aware we’re still in a pandemic, and we’re going to be cautious on all fronts, no doubt."
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).
Updated on Friday, August 21, 2020 at 7:21 AM CDT: Corrects typo
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