Curling scores a bullseye with seniors

Why are so many children of the “roaring twenties” and “dirty thirties” turning out in record numbers to slide and sweep 40 pounds of polished granite down a sheet of ice? It has a lot to do with exercise, fresh air, team spirit… and fun.

About 30 years ago curling clubs across Canada began promoting their sport as more than an “old geezer’s game.” Curling officials vigorously proclaimed the “roaring game” as a sport that could be played by both men and women, from age “seven to heaven.”

The continuing promotion has paid off handsomely with an unprecedented boom in the sport across the country. National and world curling competitions now attract solid ratings on national television, and a new, younger generation are part of the elite level of the sport. But while Canada has always been a dominant force in World Curling Championships, only 16 per cent of Canadian curlers can be considered “professional” — the vast majority enjoy the game as social or recreational curlers.

^According to the Ontario Curling Association, 1.3 million Canadians of all ages now participate in the sport. And while there’s still an emphasis on encouraging younger folk to join their lal club, seniors’ curling has been quietly experiencing its own boom during the last decade.

John McCrae, general manager of the Ontario Curling Association, says there are now at least 10,000 senior curlers in southern Ontario alone.

“Senior curling,” according to McCrae, “has replaced the afternoon ladies scheduled curling in most clubs.” Seniors have also provided a big financial boost to many clubs as they fill ice time during mornings and afternoons when previously the facilities were not being used, or under-utilized. Today, in some clubs, the senior men’s morning or afternoon league is the largest membership division.

The social and exercise aspects of the sport seem to be the prime reasons for the rapid and continuing expansion of senior curling. It’s comparatively easy to learn, the equipment is minimal and inexpensive, and club membership fees are relatively low. Curling is a team sport, and traditionally the more experienced players help newcomers with the fundamentals of the game as they move up, over time, through the positions of lead, second, vice-skip, and ultimately, skip.

Southwestern Ontario is a current hotbed of seniors’ curling, with members from 22 curling clubs in the region and one from neighboring Detroit joining forces to form the Southwestern Ontario Senior Men’s Curling Association (SOSMCA). Among other functions, SOSMCA helps coordinate the scheduled one-day bonspiels that appear on club curling calendars in the area, held almost every Wednesday and Friday from fall through spring. These popular social and competitive one-day bonspiels, and inter-club matches, usually comprise two eight-end games, with lunch and prizes included, for a modest entry fee often less than $20 per person, and most bonspiels have waiting lists.

Clubs running events on the SOSMCA bonspiel circuit offer competitions for curlers aged 55 and older, 60 and older, and 70-plus. Speaking of ages, a check with some of the clubs belonging to SOSMCA revealed the following: The Sarnia Curling Club has 110 senior curlers, two of whom, Gordon Finlay and Ken Collins, will mark their 87th birthday this year; and the 67-member senior contingent at the Aylmer Curling Club boasts it has as a member one of the oldest women curlers, Sharon McCormack, aged 85.

Many of the programs for older curlers operate 12 months of the year. The seniors in Aylmer and St. Thomas, for instance, have three golf tournaments each summer, in addition to an annual fishing excursion on Lake Erie, a visit to the horse races, casino trip, Toronto Blue Jays or Detroit Tigers game, and sometimes a night at the Stratford Festival or one of the major stage spectaculars in Toronto — a full program that keeps curlers in touch with their friends and colleagues year ’round.

The recent invention of a special handle device that can be used to assist elderly and disabled curlers “deliver the rock” is an innovation that is already enabling many curlers in prolonging their participation in the game. On the competitive level, the OCA’s McCrae notes that for the first time, seniors curling will be included in the World Winter Masterathlete Games in Ottawa in 1998.

However, the vast majority of senior curlers who now fill the daytime hours in many curling clubs across Canada, are there for the fun, exercise and fellowship. Most senior leagues make up teams for weekly draws, so if a player decides to take a short respite from winter in a sunnier clime, their absence doesn’t hurt the team.

Snowbirds who spend most or all of the winter in Florida will be interested to learn that plans are in the works to build a curling club in that southern state. When it opens, Snowbirds will have an added way to keep fit and enjoy the fellowship of other expatriate Canadian curlers while in the sunny south.

Who knows? They might even introduce a few native Florida folks to the grand old game.