Given the profile of curling in recent years – no bones about it, Kevin Martin, Randy Ferbey, Sandra Schmirler and Jennifer Jones have been good for the sport – it might come as a surprise that the sport is threatened in its heartland.
Oh, sure, clubs like the Saville and Granite are flourishing. That’s because they are representative of what Alberta has become: increasingly urban, based around massive population.
These city clubs are busy, pulling in as many as 2,000 active members. There are two and three draws a night, every night of the week, from fun leagues to the ultra-competitive leagues focused on the Scotties and the Brier.
Outside the major metropolitan areas, however, the sound of crashing granite is getting harder and harder to hear. And it’s not because rural curlers have been deafened by decades of “hurry, hard”s shouted in their ears.
At one time, not so long ago, you would be hard-pressed to find a community without a curling rink. It was almost like you would not be allowed to call yourself a town without one of those familiar half-domed tubes that house so many houses.
Those buildings, grey with smoke and the slap of brooms, were full night in, night out. There were waiting lists and overflowing spare lists as everyone with a social inclination tried to get time on the ice. It was a community within a community, a place where people played and caroused, where they brought their kids and their wedding parties.
Today, many of those buildings are grey because the lights are out.
Part of the decline of the rural club can be laid directly at the feet of the Alberta advantage. Curling, at its heart, is a farmer’s game; something to do in the cold of winter between harvest and calving when there is little else to do and pent-up energy needs to be released. As Alberta’s resource bonanza grew into an economic superpower, farmers started giving up their winter siestas in favour of the oilpatch. Twelve days in and four out made it hard to schedule regular men’s leagues. Women picked up more of the family shuttle service, and ladies’ nights suffered, too. Junior programs started to decline because if parents aren’t curling, rink rats aren’t developing.
The Alberta Advantage isn’t the only culprit, though. The populations in rural Alberta are in a slow, inexorable decline as more and more of us move closer to the city and start curling there, in facilities with six and eight sheets a building, on ice fabricated by a full-time ice maker.
Compounding the issue is cost. The average rural club can spend $25,000 or more each year just on utilities. As membership declines, it gets harder and harder for clubs to meet their obligations, and they become ever more dependent on casino money and Brier money and the like to keep the ice in and the doors open.
It’s not time for rural curling’s obituary just yet. Every year, though, it gets a little closer.
And when the rural game finally dies out, the sport will be all the poorer, no matter how healthy the urban clubs become.