Of Heroes, Memories and Mum

Like anybody else, I owe any success I've had in curling to luck and the hard work, support and the sacrifices others have made. My late father, Bill, Sr., for his coaching, work ethic and passion for the game. My wife, Pat, for the ten years of winter nights alone, the words of encouragement and the tears of disappointment when I wanted to cry but couldn't. My brother, Stu, for his winning attitude and role model. My teammates, all of them over the years, for their patience and pluck. A few close friends who have let me whine to them when I needed to and then helped me put it together again (meaning a swift kick in the ...).

Our mother played a special role, as mothers do. There was no day care in the 40's and 50's but that didn't stop our Mum. As pre-schoolers we'd be bundled up and taken with her to the rink which would become a second home. I was such a hand-full for babysitters, including my brothers and sisters, I often ended up going to Saturday Night Mixed with Mum and Dad. An almost daily routine during elementary school years was for Brian Rafuse and I to go to the club only a few hundred feet away to watch our brothers play, wolf down pop, chips and chocolate bars and wait for a lift home for the supper Mum had all ready and waiting. The Bridgewater Curling Club is still "home" in a manner of speaking, still a warm and welcoming place for me and my family even though we moved away almost 30 years ago.

The game almost never stopped at the rink. My brother, Stu and I used to "curl" with pennies on my mother's kitchen counter long before I ever got into a real game. Yup, circles drawn in using different sized plates for scribing the concentric rings into the arborite with pencil ... deep and permanent.

We used to play "tournaments" pretending to be all the great names ... all my heroes, Hec Gervais, the Richardsons, the Campbells of Avonlea, Lyall Dagg, Chuck Hay and Bud Somerville were right up there with the Babe, the Mick and the Say-hey Kid.

Dad took Stu and me out of school to watch the last couple of days of the Brier at the Halifax Forum in 1966. There was a sudden death final between Northcott and Gurowka that came down to the last shot. Northcott and his rink had passed by me after one game ... maybe it was the final ... and Fred Storey, the legendary front-end man handed me his broom. It was cherished for years, a sacred relic. The kids at school never did understand that for me, this was like getting Jean Belliveau's hockey stick.

The greats of the time were known in the Maritimes mostly through the CBC Curling Classic, the Brier Report (usually well after midnight), newspaper accounts and around our house through tales of great shotmaking and cagey strategy. I learned that "cagey" was what you were when you won with your wits even though you were out-gunned by your opponents. Today they call it "winning ugly".

That was when Johnny Wayne of Wayne and Shuster was the colour-man for CBC Curling Classic (also Cross-Canada Curling) and Alex Trebek of "Jeopardy" did the commentary on a made-for-TV points competition called "Keen Ice". The pre-recorded TV games were edited down to one hour then, often only showing the thirds' and skips' rocks. A lot of non-curlers watched the games and often would wonder if the big ugly guys only sweep. It wasn't unusual to see one of them sweeping a grinding slow draw with a corn broom while clasping a lit cigarette between his teeth. Back then nobody knew what 25-second ice was, curling clubs had the ambiance of a pool hall, the ladies weren't allowed in the bar, stop-watches were strictly for the athletic and real men got blisters.

I remember being annoyed about having to play lead on my first day. Tom Fetterly got to skip and it was his first day, too. That was the season Alfie Phillips, Jr. won the Brier and took the wheel of a bus for a joyride in Perth at the Worlds. The Campbells won the Apple Spiel in Berwick at a little club in Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley an hour-and-a-half from Halifax. I was only twelve playing my first real 'spiel. The big bonus was that I was playing with my dad and two big brothers, Stu and Norm, seven and 10 years older, who were beginning to make a name for themselves on the competitive circuit, such as it was.

The excitement was unbearable and I got my first "butterflies". The little club was packed as we played the final against a team of transplanted westerners stationed at nearby CFB Greenwood. They were the local favourites, provincial contenders and from the land of my heroes.

We were a bit of a novelty, a family team with a little kid at lead. They even sawed off a club broom (players didn't own their own in the Maritimes, then) so I could handle it better. The crowds of spectators (all 50 or so) made each shot a performance and I remember loving that part. I didn't understand it then but this was a rite of passage and my dad forbade me to look behind the glass at the people watching. It was partly his preference for a stoic on-ice demeanour but I think he realized I liked the attention too much. It didn't take him long to make the point that "Hot-dogs" belonged in the circus.

The local people thought all this was cute. But I was Fred Storey. This was my Brier.This was what pro ballplayers would come to call "The Show". It was the most fun I had ever had without laughing. And I came to play.

When it was over, the good people of Berwick offered us lodging to save us the drive home so late (it was midnight). We couldn't stay so they packed us up with apples, pies and all kinds of snacks for our trip home.

There would be more spiels. Mum would regularly be presented with four electric popcorn poppers or four sets of steak knives or dinnerware or whatever by her husband and three sons. A curler but not a competitor herself, she would wait alone patiently by the phone for the next twenty years as she had for the previous twenty. Or she would sit nervously and inconspicuously behind the glass supporting us through dozens of playdowns, cashpiels, provincial and national championships.

Above all the many good things that have come to me in this humbling game, that magical rite of passage that Saturday in Berwick, that modest first success is my fondest curling memory. And thankfully, as only a mother can remember her son at twelve, Mum has always helped me to reach back to it.