Nelson curling sweeps away the past

BC provincial men's championship runs Wednesday to Sunday at Nelson Curling Club.

The BC provincial men’s curling championship runs until Sunday at the Nelson Curling Club.

Fred Thomson was there 10 years ago when Nelson curling had its last great moment.

Thomson, and fellow Nelson native Rob Nobert, were on the ice for the last day of the 2005 Brier round robin playing for a Trail rink that also included Castlegar’s Deane Horning. They felt like rock stars.

“It was just crazy. The crowd was going nuts because all players from both teams were curling over 90 per cent. We were trading body blows and the crowd was just going crazy and our game against Quebec was on national TV,” said Thomson.

“The excitement was unbelievable. I don’t know what an NHL player feels like out there playing in front of people every night but it was just amazing.”

The rink finished just outside a playoff berth. In the years since, Nelson curling has seen the demise of its premier tournament and a dwindling membership at the once-vibrant club. The sport had its heyday, but that was a long time ago.

Nelson’s curling community hopes that is about to change. The 2016 Canadian Direct Insurance BC Men’s Curling Championship opens Wednesday, giving Nelson its biggest curling event in years. Sixteen rinks will compete through Sunday’s final for the chance to represent BC at the Brier next month in Ottawa.

It’s a return to the spotlight Thomson, who will be on hand at the tournament as a spare, believes is overdue for Nelson.

“We have a long rich history with curling in the Kootenays,” said Thomson. “We’ve hosted other events in the past, but to host the men’s provincial championship where the winner goes to the Brier is a very big scoop.”

The concept of a provincial championship being played in Nelson wasn’t always so far-fetched.

Nelson opened its first curling club in 1898 and began hosting the Midsummer Bonspiel in 1945. It was a major annual draw for curlers, attracting more than 200 rinks at its peak. But the event, and the sport itself, began to fade — the Midsummer Bonspiel was held for the last time in 2008.

Brent Pihowich, the club’s vice president, chairman of the provincial championship and a tournament spare, said completion of the Nelson and District Community Complex in 2005 — and the loss of campground land next to the curling club — marked the end of the bonspiel.

“Curlers really enjoyed coming here and this was their holiday,” said Pihowich. “Curling was secondary. They set up their tents and their campers, they had space right there. They’d walk across, go for a game of golf, come back and curl a game and go down to the beach. That was their holiday.”

Gordon Wiess’s term as president of the Nelson Curling Club began last fall. He moved to the city in 2004 and witnessed the death of the bonspiel, which Wiess attributed to the rise of competing bonspiels in other locations, changes to liquor laws and volunteer fatigue.

But it was public perception about the club, he said, that truly hurt the sport in a place with plenty of athletic alternatives.

“The curling club had this great image and reputation of being party central and a fun sport,” said Wiess. “However, if you want people who aren’t interested in curling to respect what curling brings to a community, and if you are looking for public funds going toward anything, you need to have an image within the community of more than just a party.

“You need to have an image of sport development, and that’s where the youth come in.”

Youth curling is something Wiess admits the club neglected for a long time and is still struggling to rebuild. The club currently has a youth league and hosts school groups, but there is no drop-in night that might encourage families to try the sport.

Tracey Mozel, the club’s director of youth programs, said fewer parents are playing curling nationwide, which in turn means kids aren’t being exposed to the sport.

“So we’ve lost that continuity overall across Canada,” said Mozel. “We’ve gone from a society where virtually everybody curled or knew somebody who curled, especially in smaller towns, and we’ve arrived at a point where virtually nobody does. It’s kind of a sport that’s been pushed out into the fringes.”

It doesn’t help that the city-owned Nelson Curling Club has seen better days. Wiess said the structure of the current building, which began operating in 1973, is still sound even if it lacks aesthetic appeal. He also conceded parking space is a nightmare for the building, which is tucked behind the NDCC.

Visitors to the club might also find the indoor temperature a little chilly — the furnace has been broken since last April.

Wiess said a group has begun to hold preliminary meetings to talk about the building’s future.

“Every old building always needs a bit of paint here and there but there’s nothing about the building that says it’s ready to be torn down. It’s still functional,” he said.

Two days prior to the championship there was plenty of preparation going on at the club. Over 100 volunteers will chip in at the event, which Wiess hopes is successful enough to spark a revitalization for Nelson curling.

“It’s a matter of how much energy, how much time we here in Nelson want to put in,” said Wiess. “If we want to see Nelson become a curling centre, [I believe] it’s possible.

“It just means we have to work at it.”

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