NORTH BAY, Ont. — Years ago, when they were young, Jennifer Jones made her friend Jill Officer a promise. It was the kind of vow that would usually be easy to make, harder to keep, especially as new pressures mounted.
As long as Jones was calling shots, she pledged, then Officer would have a spot on her team.
This is the story of one of curling's most enduring partnerships, and Jones has told it before. It's the tale of a bond that has spanned 23 seasons on the ice, and most of the skip and second's lives away from the sheet.
That's a vanishing rarity in the increasingly mercenary world of top-end curling. Today, most elite players join forces for one Olympic quadrennial, or maybe two. But not for virtually all of their junior and women's careers.
"It almost has to be a record," Jones says. "I can’t think of anybody else who’s done it for that long."
And through it all, there was never a time when she and Officer considered parting ways.
For real, Jones says, chatting in North Bay's Memorial Gardens arena, in the calm after Friday morning's world championship draw. People ask her that question all the time, but sometimes seem skeptical of the answer.
"I think people think it's just lip service sometimes," she says. "Honestly, we really do like each other. We love each other. We respect each other as teammates, but we really, really like each other as people."
Yet there has to have been some friction, right? Something that once frayed ties between them?
"No," Jones replies. "On the ice, or whatever. But there's no 'big team-meeting' type friction."
The proof, so much as they can offer, is this: for the skip, Officer is "like a sister." For lead Dawn McEwen, the joke is that their front-end partnership is more like "husband and wife," an easy, finish-the-sentence friendship.
They are always together. In the winters they're on the road, in planes, crammed in hotel rooms from Europe to North Bay. But even in summer, McEwen and Officer meet for dinner, or take their families camping together.
So this is the truth: when Officer, 42, steps away from full-time play after this season, what scares her teammates most isn't how they'll win without her. (They have full faith in incoming Jocelyn Peterman.)
No, it's how much they're going to miss their friend, after a near lifetime of years, tears and triumphs.
"I told Jill, that's the biggest fear I have, in all of this," Jones says. "That we won't see each other all the time. But nothing will ever change. This is not the end of our life together."
And this weekend's world championship battle isn't the end, not yet: there are two grand slams in April.
Yet when Officer takes the ice in these playoffs, it could be the last time she wears the Maple Leaf in full-time competition. It could be the last time she sweeps one of Jones' rocks into the rings for a most coveted prize.
So it's a good time to reflect on how far Officer has come with Team Jones and what she's meant.
When Officer announced her impending departure earlier this month — she won't use the "retirement" word — it sent ripples through the curling world. After 15 straight seasons, it's hard to picture a Team Jones without her.
It's sad, fans Barb Hodgson and Pat Massicotte agree, chatting at the North Bay arena Friday morning.
"To me, she's just one of the best," Massicotte says. "She's so into her game."
For better or worse, front-end players don't typically get so much attention. That Officer does is a reflection on her longevity in the sport, and on her uniquely visible role as a frequent team spokesperson.
It is also this: Officer will leave women's curling a whole lot different than when she found it.
By now, the details of the Jones-Officer duo are familiar. They were just teens when Jones boldly approached Officer behind a Coke machine at the former Highlander Curling Club, and asked if Officer would play for her.
Officer, then just 15 years old and a skip, replied that she'd have to ask her parents.
From then on, they were always in touch. They won two provincial junior championships and one national junior title. They parted ways for awhile, when Officer moved to Brandon for school; they reunited when she was done.
It was a fascinating partnership. While both curlers had strong personalities, they clicked rather then clashed. Jones was ambitious, brimming with visions; Officer would be the first behind her to say "let's get this done."
She was also outgoing and effortlessly extroverted where Jones, at the time, was more shy.
"Jill was like the big second back then," says McEwen, who first met Officer while playing lead for Jenn Hanna. "She was tall and intimidating and boisterous. She just has a really big presence. She was one-of-a-kind."
At the time, the women's game was changing. Canadian curling had instituted the three-rock rule in 1993, and games were now won as much outside the house as in it. In that milieu, Officer's strengths were explosive.
"It was an evolution in the game, to where it was more aggressive," Jones says. "It was, why can't we as women push our limits? And Jill totally agreed. We were always trying to evolve where women's curling was going."
At the time, Officer wasn't unusually strong on draws. (She developed that part of her game, as time went on.)
But she could throw laser-guided missiles, at a time when few women did. She was tall and fit, and when she wasn't launching off from the hack, she used those arms to drag rocks to paint and carve them behind guards.
That prowess allowed the Jones team to clean up problems in ways other teams could only dream.
"Now, if you don't have that weapon, you can't compete," Jones says. "Way back then, not every team had it."
In living rooms and curling clubs across the world, the next generation was watching. As a young curler in Alaska, Team USA second Vicky Persinger, 25, used to watch pirated TV feeds of Team Jones at the Scotties.
By the time Persinger began playing against the Jones foursome, she knew to be wary.
"You have to be really careful about where you put your guards," she says of the challenge Officer poses for a competing second. "Just because a double peel is, I don't want to say simple, but it's pretty routine for her."
So that is Officer's legacy to the sport. It's harder to capture the legacy she leaves for her team.
They have no shortage of superlatives. Officer is the "nicest person ever," McEwen says, the funniest, the most non-judgmental. The first person you call when you need a pick-me-up or advice, on curling or simply on life.
And she is the team's emotional breaker switch, the one who wears her heart on her sleeve. When Officer's tears start to flow, which they do after every championship win, the rest of the team's also break loose.
That's why the announcement of her departure, at Fort Rouge earlier this month, was so emotional. They'd known her decision since before the Scotties, but once Officer started choking up, that's when it was real.
"When it became public, that's when it really became a reality," McEwen says.
Now, they will look ahead to a new Olympic quadrennial (mostly) without her. They're excited about starting something new with Peterman, a slick hitter who most recently played for expat Manitoban Chelsea Carey.
Still, it will be different. To TSN analyst Cathy Gauthier, who helped assemble and played lead on the Team Jones that won the 2005 Scotties, what Officer brought most of all was a loyalty that never once faltered.
In a time where people "ditch and move on" when things go badly, Gauthier says, that's a rarity.
"What makes Jill a standout is her unwavering support for Jen," says Gauthier . "Good shot or bad. Good game or bad. On ice or off. No player in my opinion, either past or present, is as stalwart in her support of the skip.
"That puts a couple of points on the board in games where a skip's confidence struggles."
Yet that part isn't over, not really. Officer will help out next year, as an alternate. She plans to remain their biggest cheerleader, just as she's always been, through championships and heartbreaks and one Olympic gold medal.
That's the game, though. In the life outside the ice, it's a whole lot more simple.
"We love her to death," Jones says. "And we're going to miss her."