The humble two-sheet curling club in Avonlea, Sask., is what curling on the Prairies is all about. Passing through the creaking door is like entering a public shrine that houses the memories of a sport and the soul of a community. Day or night, the club is open to anyone in the farming community of 450 who wants to drop by and throw a few rocks, or simply soak up the atmosphere. Decorating the walls are tributes to Avonlea’s most famous family, the curling Campbells, who won the Macdonald Brier-as the Canadian men’s championship was then known-in 1955. A framed hand-written poem titled “The Campbells of Avonlea,” penned by a local fan, hangs from the wall describing the game in end-by-end detail. Next to the poem is an oil painting of father Sandy Campbell and his five sons. Most of the 28 cubicles where members store their equipment are unlocked. Not that it matters, because the combinations are plainly written on the locker doors. As Stan Petruic, volunteer ice maker at Avonlea, puts it: “We want people to feel that this place belongs to them.”
Quiet, empty and dark on an early weekday afternoon, the club slowly stirs to life as young curlers stop by after school to pick up their brooms and shoes before leaving for junior-league games 50 km away in Ogema. Dave Miller, 44, who farms just outside town, stops by to scrape the ice in preparation for that night’s semifinal and final of the Deep South Super League between rinks from Avonlea and nearby Bengough, close to the Montana border. As one of the competitors, Miller wants to make sure the ice runs straight and true. He is helped by Gordon Campbell, 73, one of four surviving Campbell brothers and the only one who does not spend his winter in warmer southern climes. “This would be a sad town if we didn’t have the curling rink,” says Campbell, his voice echoing in the cold, crisp air inside the long, low-ceilinged rink. Miller agrees: “The town would be pretty dead. This is where people gather in the winter.”
The story is the same across the Prairies, where curling is deeply embedded in the fabric of small-town life. In Saskatchewan, there are more than 37,000 curlers registered with the Saskatchewan Curling Association. Last year, the two-sheet club in isolated Uranium City, 1,000 km north of Regina, reopened after being closed for 12 years following the shutdown of the nearby mine and the near-death of the community. “The people decided they needed a curling rink again,” says association executive director Don Bacon. “The town didn’t feel right without one.” More than a sport, curling is a social event that provides a sense of belonging. “There is no better way to get to know people than through curling,” says Alynne Caswell, co-ordinator of Avonlea’s six-team junior curling program. “There is this instant bond.” Caswell grew up in Eyebrow, Sask., where the curling rink was the hub of the community, and has made friends through curling in every town she and her husband, Clarence, a grain elevator agent, have called home.
For Mark Buckland and his wife, Pat, who moved to Avonlea less than two years ago from Crowsnest Pass, Alta., curling has made them feel like they belong. Knowing no one in town, the couple put their names in for the annual mixed bonspiel last spring-even though Mark had never curled before. A year later, he plays in the men’s league and the Bucklands feel like full members of the community. “Something about curling makes you a part of the town once you play,” says Buckland. It is a game that also renders social status meaningless. Sam Richardson of Regina, a member of the Richardson family team of the early 1960s who won four Canadian championships, says curling is the only sport where what you do for a living does not matter. “You’ll see professional people like doctors and lawyers playing on teams with plumbers and electricians,” says Richardson. “When you curl together, you all share the same thing-a love of the sport.”
But curlers also share something else-respect for each other. The game’s etiquette demands civility between opponents. And nowhere is the calming effect of curling more apparent than in towns like Avonlea where curling competition between towns stands in stark contrast with the heated rivalry created by competing hockey teams. Among the curling fans on hand for the Deep South Super League final are the wives of the curlers from Bengough. As the games slowly unfold, the women and other fans applaud good shots on both sides. “After curling, everyone sits down together and has a good time,” says Caroline Kesslering, wife of Carl Kesslering from near Bengough. “But when it comes to hockey, towns can really hate each other. If you’re the visiting team, you wouldn’t even stop to have something to eat at the local cafe because the feelings are so strong.” There is no such tension or anger in the serenity of the Avonlea Curling Club, a place where curling soothes the soul.