Shot Stone: Curling in Canada

The Curlers 025: Shot Stone: Curling in Canada
January 7, 2016

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Curling could be considered the unofficial national sport of Canada. In this episode, we will explore the game’s evolution, its development as an organized sport, and the creation of a Canadian curling culture. We will also let you know about the extensive collection of materials at Library and Archives Canada related to the history and the development of curling in Canada. Our guest for this episode is Warren Hansen. Warren is not only a curling historian and expert, but a Canadian men’s curling champion. He and his Alberta team, skipped by Hector Gervais, won the 1974 Brier. Recently retired, Warren had worked for the Canadian Curling Association since 1974.

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Related Links

Bonspiel! The History of Curling in Canada
Curling in Canada Flickr Album
Sandra Schmirler - Celebrating Women's Achievements
Canadian Olympians - Library and Archives Canada
Sports - Library and Archives Canada

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Podcast Transcript

Shot Stone: Curling in Canada

Jessica Ouvrard: Welcome to "Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage." I'm your host, Jessica Ouvrard. Join us as we showcase treasures from our vaults; guide you through our many services; and introduce you to the people who acquire, safeguard and make known Canada's documentary heritage.
Curling could be considered the unofficial national sport of Canada. In this episode, we will explore the game's evolution, its development as an organized sport, and the creation of a Canadian curling culture. We will also let you know about the extensive collection of materials at Library and Archives Canada related to the history and the development of curling in Canada.

If you are interested in viewing images associated with this podcast, you can follow along by viewing our Flickr gallery. You can access a direct link at bac-lac.gc.ca/podcasts.

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Our guest for this episode is Warren Hansen. Warren is not only a curling historian and expert, but a Canadian men's curling champion. He and his Alberta team, skipped by Hector Gervais, won the 1974 Brier. Recently retired, Warren had worked for the Canadian Curling Association since 1974. We asked Warren about his background and his involvement with curling. He joins us by phone from Vancouver.

WH: Well, I've been around the sport of curling most of my life—it would go back to the early ‘60s. I guess I started curling, actually, in 1958, and I played a lot competitively through the ‘60s. I went into curling as a business probably in the early ‘70s, initially running a curling school operation that went across Canada, through northern U.S. and parts of Europe including Japan, and I started working for the Canadian Curling Association in 1974, which actually happened to be the same year that I was on the team that won the Brier. So curling is in my blood—it's been running through my veins for a long time, and most things that happened within the past 50 years, I certainly am pretty familiar with.

JO: Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has an extensive collection of holdings related to the history and development of curling in Canada. LAC has records from the two former national governing bodies regulating the sport: the Canadian Curling Association and the Canadian Ladies Curling Association. The two bodies were amalgamated in 1990 into one single national body, the Canadian Curling Association, which is now known as Curling Canada.

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The exact origins of the game of curling are not completely clear. We asked Warren what his thoughts on this topic were.

WH: Well if you look back into history, there's evidence that suggests it actually originated in Holland. There's a painting that goes back into the 1400s that actually, people think depicts curling. However, it somehow got transferred to Scotland, and there's very solid evidence of it in Scotland, in, probably as far back as 1541, but actually 1630 is when people feel it originally started in Scotland.

JO: OK, and to go back to the Dutch one, is that the Bruegel painting?

WH: Yes, it is.

JO: OK, yeah yeah yeah.

The Bruegel paintings I asked Warren about are by Pieter Bruegel, a Dutch Renaissance painter. The two oil paintings, Winter Landscape with a Bird Trap and The Hunters in the Snow, appear to depict curling in its earliest form. Both paintings are from 1565. But there is strong evidence that Scotland was indeed the location of the game's origin. Curling stones dated 1511 and 1551 were uncovered when a pond in Dunblane was drained. These stones are still on display at the Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum, in Stirling, Scotland.

There is also some debate about where and when the first curling club was established, but there is no doubt about it being in Scotland. The earliest printed reference to curling dates from the 1600s. In the poem, The Muses Threnodie; Or Mirthful Mournings on the Death of Mr Gall, poet Henry Adamson writes of his friend Mr. Gall, "a citizen of Perth, and a gentle-man of goodly stature, and pregnant wit, much given to pastime, as golf, archerie, curling and jovial companie." As time went on, reference to curling became more frequent. The first description of an actual curling game appeared in The Weekly Magazine in 1771, by Scottish poet James Graeme.

WH: Well, it was originally played on ponds in Scotland with, virtually, rough pebbles and rocks that were reshaped into what we know today as a curling stone and certainly was initially very crude, and that's where it virtually started and it grew for some reason in Scotland. Scotland has delivered two things to us: golf and curling. But it got transferred to Canada back in the 1700s, and actually in the year 1759, there's history that suggests that it was played on the St. Charles River in Quebec by the 78th Highlanders who got stranded there over the winter shortly after the war, and they actually reshaped cannonballs into curling rocks that they used on the St. Charles River.

JO: OK.

WH: That's how far back it goes in Canada. Interesting enough, its original origins being in Quebec, but today, probably per capita, Quebec is one of the lower provinces when it comes to numbers of curlers.

JO: LAC also holds documents relating to some of the oldest curling clubs in Canada: The Royal Montreal Curling Club created in 1807, and the Montreal Caledonia Curling Club created in 1850. The Royal Caledonian Curling Club, Canadian Branch fonds is of special interest. The organization was created in 1852 when curling clubs in Quebec and Ontario decided to join together to establish the Branch to promote the game in Canada. The fonds includes minute books, letterbooks, incoming correspondence, financial material and other records of the Canadian Branch. It also includes minute books of the Granite Curling Association, 1924–1950 and records of the Ladies Curling Association, 1904–1986. LAC also has the papers of the first historian of the Branch, Howard Hyland Ward.

The language of curling is quite unique. We asked Warren where some of the curling terms originated from.

WH: Well a lot of it, again, goes back to Scotland, and I think one of the most interesting terms in curling is the hog line. The hog line is on each end of a sheet of ice, and for a rock to be in play when it's delivered, it has to cross that line, and actually at the other end, when you throw the stone, you must release the rock before it reaches the hog line. And people wonder where the term "hog" comes from; if you go back into Scottish history, you actually find that hog was what was referred to as a lost sheep, so I guess a rock that doesn't cross the hog line is lost, which is where it originates. So again, many of the terms, the "foothold," the "hack," which was originally the "crampit" and became the hack again, are all terms that came from Scotland.

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JO: Curling is a sport rich in tradition and etiquette. Warren explains some of these to us, and their continued importance to the game today.

WH: Well I think, again, it's a game—golf and curling were both originated in Scotland and the ethics part of it and the code of conduct in both sports are very similar. They're both very honourable games and most of the emphasis on participating by the rules and regulations are placed on each participant themselves and it's a great dishonour to have violated any of the rules or etiquette of the sport. And golf and curling are very similar from that point of view and a lot of those codes of conduct and ethics that goes back to the original aspects of the game are still with us today.

JO: Right. So like the spirit of good sportsmanship?

WH: The good sportsmanship, the spirit of "if I did something wrong, I will be the first to admit it..."

JO: Yes, if I touch a stone by accident…

WH: …I will, in fact, impose a penalty on myself rather than you having to do it.

JO: Yeah.

WH: Certainly at the high level of both golf and curling,that probably doesn't 100% exist today, because of what's involved. But still, for the most part, you'll find in both sports, I think, that the players themselves are very quick to offer the fact that they did something wrong, if in fact they are aware of it.

JO: Curling clubs seem to have become a staple of so many communities in Canada. Today there are over 1,200 clubs with 1.5 million Canadians playing the sport. Interestingly, over two-thirds of all Canadian clubs are in the four western provinces.

WH: I think, interesting enough, is how curling evolved in Canada. I mentioned it started in Quebec and it flowed into Ontario, but where it really seemed to prosper and grow was in western Canada. And certainly, if we look back even today, the biggest strength of the sport per capita are probably in the provinces Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta. And for some reason, when the West was settled, one of the first things that became in existence in every community was a curling rink. Many people think it was a hockey rink, but I tend to differ and believe it was a curling rink and it became the sort of centre of the social hub for all these little communities as western Canada developed. If you go into a province like Saskatchewan you can go into many of these small towns and still see a two-sheet, natural ice curling club that probably was originally put there a couple of hundred years ago. So that is sort of how it became really part of the fabric of the community and part of the fabric of the country—is particularly how it developed in western Canada.

JO: And it became a sort of a social—it had a strong social aspect as well.

WH: Yeah, it became a social hub of many communities; people went there as part of their entertainment and part of their social life was to be part of the local curling club.

JO: Right.

WH: And because the curling clubs were covered and indoors it was a little more appealing, I think, than hockey rinks.

JO: Yes.

WH: And certainly the curling aspect appealed to men and women equally, which also is what made it unique.

JO: Government records also provide documentation on the expansion of curling across Canada, including northern and western Canada, where the sport has become very popular. For example, the records of the office of the director of colonization and agriculture of the Canadian National Railways fonds includes files related to the development of curling clubs in Saskatchewan.

In your opinion, do you think that curling can be seen as a reflection of Canadian identity?

WH: I do. I mean, many feel that hockey is truly the national sport of Canada along with lacrosse, and curling kind of steps into the background to some degree. But I think it more reflects who Canadians are, as far as the type of activity it is and how you conduct yourself in playing it; there's no fighting and there's no attempt to brutalize your opponent in any way, shape, or form—quite the opposite. I think it very much reflects Canadian ideals from that point of view.

JO: Yes. LAC also holds many publications related to curling, including the first Canadian publication relating to the sport, James Bicket's The Canadian Curler's Manual, which was published in 1840. Early visual depiction of curling games and teams from the 1830s until the First World War can be found in numerous documentary art and photographic holdings held by LAC. They provide researchers with unique information on the origin and development of curling in Canada. Researchers can also view footage from LAC's extensive collection of audiovisual material, which documents national and international curling competitions, as well as the practice of curling in Canadian communities.

Curling had dramatically developed over the years on its way to becoming a recognized Olympic sport with high-performing athletes. Can you explain for us the process behind this evolution?

WH: Yeah, I can because I was a person very much involved in creating that evolution. When I played the sport as a top competitor back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, things were very club-based, and it was still very much everyman's sport, and it was unique in those days that the playoffs to the Brier—the Canadian men's championship—started in every curling club in Canada every year and to actually have a team that competed at that level, you all had to be members of that same club. And it was, again, very social and very much a gentleman's game and it didn't really have a high athletic component attached to it. Myself and a few others that came along in the ‘60s and ‘70s though, begin to change a lot as to how we approached it from an athletic point of view and realized that very much it was an athletic skill like anything else if it was performed properly at the top level. I was very much involved in trying to change the image and the direction of the sport through the late ‘70s and early ‘80s that was able to get it in as a demonstration sport in the Olympics in 1988 in Calgary and ultimately become a medal sport in 1992, out of meetings held in Barcelona, Spain in the '92 Olympics. That to some degree changed a lot of how, I suppose, the manner of how curling was looked upon by many people, and it changed it from being a club-based sport—that everything to do with the sport came out of the club—to we now created and begin the creation of a high-performance, high-performing athlete aspect of the sport that didn't exist before. And, to that degree, there's been a bit of a—we're still in a bit of a confusing time, and the fact that these very highly toned high-performance athletes are still intermingled with the club athletes to some degree, but as time goes on, they are more and more and more moving out into a branch of their own which, probably they should be, like in any other sport, and they're no longer really part of the club element that existed back in the ‘60s, ‘70s and even the ‘80s.

JO: We asked Warren if he thought this evolution made it more difficult for club players to compete against these high-performance athletes.

WH: I believe it's a natural evolution, the fact that there are still lots of competitions for people to play in that aren't in that high-performance group. We're still a little bit fuzzy as to who belongs where, but I think it's slowly sorting itself out. I don't think it is harmful to the sport and you'll get arguments that people look at this in different ways. I think the fact that it's got Olympic profile, the fact that Canadians consistently win medals at the Olympics in curling adds to its overall attraction, especially for younger people, I think it makes it more appealing to them. And if you're a Canadian kid and you want to have a good chance of winning an Olympic medal, I can't think of a sport that you could better select than curling to have the best chance.

JO: Warren, how do you envision the future of curling in Canada?

WH: I think curling had a very bright future in Canada; I think it has a very bright future around the world. It has certainly progressed in Canada faster and better than anywhere else on the entire planet. The question as to why has that happened? I suppose we could talk for the next hour as to determine that factor, but if we look at the curling world overall today, which has probably about 55 countries involved, the number of players in Canada would probably far outnumber the rest of the curling world put together. The interesting aspect of all this is, probably the second biggest curling nation in the world with regard to numbers is the United States, yet it's still very small. And the United States has not done very well at the high-performance level in probably the last 25 years. However, I think things there are in just the edge of beginning to catch hold because the Olympics has had a huge impact on the United States from an awareness point of view with the populous overall, and seemingly they are very attracted to the sport of curling. So I look at the years ahead, as to how many years that's going to take, that there's going to become a far bigger involvement by the Americans with the sport, and as a result, that's going to be a spinoff into Canada. And I think that even though the sport's done very well in Canada, as a result of all this, it will do better. And I look for the future of curling, not just in Canada, but in the rest of the world over the next 10 to 15 years to be very bright.

JO: The Canadian men's and women's team both won gold at the last winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. We wondered what impact this would have in the sport in Canada.

WH: I think it can have nothing but a positive impact because of the type of players that won those gold medals in Sochi—they are younger, they are very athletic, they're very well-trained, they're very disciplined, they're fine examples of athletes for any sport and I think young people seeing that are certainly going to be attracted to the sport of curling and want to be part of it and want to participate and certainly want to emulate the people that they saw winning gold medals in Sochi.

JO: The Canadian Olympians database on LAC's website also includes photos of Canadian curling teams' members at the winter Olympics from 1988 to 2002. They include the Canadian women's team led by Sandra Schmirler, which won the first Canadian curling gold medal at the winter Olympics. Schmirler's international success on the curling sheets is also highlighted in LAC's Celebrating Women's Achievements series of web articles.

We asked Warren to share with us some of his special memories and curling experiences.

WH: I have, probably, two great memories from curling that I suppose I will cherish the rest of my life. Certainly the first one, which was an unbelievable experience, was being on a team which won the Brier in 1974 and particularly because I'd worked very hard for a period of time to try and get to that pinnacle. And, to have done that was an unbelievable feeling of success.

I think the second thing that has been a fact of my curling life that will stay with me forever was my involvement and participation in being part of the process that actually got curling to eventually become a medal sport in the Olympics in 1988. And I think on a small side note, having developed a game called mixed doubles in 2001 to be part of the Continental Cup and to find out last June that that sport is going to be a medal sport in the Olympics in 2018, also, was a huge thrill and something I'll always remember.

JO: Any final thoughts Warren?

WH: I just think it's somewhat of an amazing story to some degree of—as to where this sport came from and how it moved into this country and how it grew in Canada. And for this very niche sport to be a very part of the Canadian fabric, more so than practically any other sport including hockey! And for, I think, the Canadians to be the ones who did, in fact, drive the bus in this whole thing—initially, to get this sport into Calgary in 1988 as a demonstration, and then to the final aspect of it becoming a medal sport. There's three medals now being contested in the 2018 Winter games that came into existence primarily through the whole focus of the sport of curling, and I think that's kinda unique. I can't think of any other sport that could probably make that claim from a Canadian point of view, as to "this is where it's come from and this is what's been very instrumental to make happen."

JO: To learn more about curling, please visit us online at bac-lac.gc.ca. On our homepage, select "discover the collection," then click on "browse by topic," and select "sports." On this page, you'll find a link to our webpage Bonspiel! The History of Curling in Canada. There you will find a written history of the game, an extensive image gallery, educational resources, and multiple links for further research.

Thank you for joining us. I'm your host Jessica Ouvrard, and you've been listening to "Discover Library and Archives Canada"—where Canadian history, literature and culture await you. A very special thanks to our guest today, Warren Hansen. Another special thanks to LAC Senior Archivist, Normand Laplante.

For more information about our podcast, or if you have questions, comments or suggestions, please visit us at bac-lac.gc.ca/podcasts.

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