Raymond de Souza: For pure Canadiana, the Brier is hard to beat
Curling is very, very Canadian in the best sense — challenging, wintry, courteous. Every good shot, regardless of team, is cheered with admiration
Team Saskatchewan skip Matt Dunstone delivers as they take on Team BC at the Brier in Kingston, Ont., on March 2, 2020.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press
KINGSTON, ONT. — Sports do not infallibly bring out the best in the human condition. But sometimes they do, as in this week in Canada.
Major League Baseball is weeks away from opening a new season having discovered that the Houston Astros — best record in baseball last year, three consecutive 100-win seasons, World Series champions in 2017 — ran a prolonged scheme to massively cheat. Baseball is not greatly fussed about that. The players will not be punished, their titles and records will remain because, well, correcting it would be an enormous bother and, besides, wouldn’t it mean having to act when other cheaters were caught? Baseball has a very, very long history of cheating. It’s somewhat traditional behaviour in a pastime that loves its traditions. A genteel sport is plagued by ungentlemanly conduct.
The contrary appears to be true this week in Kingston, where the annual Brier, our national men’s curling championship, is taking place. Curling is very, very Canadian in the best sense — challenging, wintry, courteous. It’s a nice change from nearly everything else going on in the country at the moment.
Last week in these pages Sean Speer wrote
about the Special Olympics taking place in Thunder Bay as a refreshing contrast to the rise of rancour across the land. The games — for those with intellectual or developmental disabilities or cognitive delay — use sports to bring out the best in the athletes and all those who assist them.
“(The Special Olympics) is a testament to the reciprocal benefits of volunteerism, civic engagement, and surrendering one’s ego to something bigger,” Speer wrote. “What distinguishes these games from so much else of modern society is the lack of cynicism, self-importance, or guile.”
The Brier is not the Special Olympics; it is the most elite curling championship held anywhere in the world. It is intensely competitive.
And yet a lack of cynicism, self-importance and guile is a description that fits.
And it is so very Canadian. Consider that while Thunder Bay was hosting the Special Olympics last week, the curling team from Manitoba dropped by overnight. Not to the city, the airport. Their Thursday flight to Toronto and onward to Kingston had been cancelled due to weather, so they rebooked for Friday before sunrise. That, too,was cancelled. So they flew late Friday evening to Thunder Bay, where all the hotels were booked for the Special Olympics. They stayed in the airport, took a flight on Saturday to Toronto and then drove to Kingston.
There was nervousness all round because the Manitoba curlers were carrying the official shirts and jackets for all the teams. The supplier was in Winnipeg and it was a cost-saving favour to Curling Canada. We celebrate “hometown hockey” but it really doesn’t get anymore down home in the Canadian winter than that.
While the curlers at the Brier are the best in the world, the week-long event is as much about the fans, who form a genuine community.
While this is the first time I have ever watched competitive curling live, there are a great number of Brier fans who travel the country year after year and attend every one of the week’s 24 “draws,” or sessions, in which up to four matches can be taking place at once. At three hours a draw, and three draws a day, that is a serious commitment.
Everyone is unfailingly polite. Every good shot, regardless of team, is cheered with admiration. Every missed shot is greeted with sighs of disappointment and consolation. There is absolutely no cheering for the misfortune of rivals. Even competing players acknowledge a particularly good shot by their opponents.
There are umpires to enforce the rules, but they are rarely called into action. The players monitor themselves and report any infractions. They decide among themselves who has scored and then report it to the scorekeeper. Concord and comity reign even amidst the necessary concentration of competition.
Alas, even into an icy Eden a technological snake has slithered in, and the rocks are fitted with electronic transmitters to ensure that they are released before the hog line. Superfluous, I object. The integrity of the players should suffice.
Rocks? Hog line? Players — or you mean lead, second, third, skip? “Hurry hard!” resounding throughout the rink?
Curling, like all sports, has its own vernacular and distinctive rules. It can be confusing for a newcomer, but a memorable part of the Brier is not knowing what exactly is happening and asking for guidance from the strangers around you. The enthusiasm with which they provide comprehensive explanations is an authentic experience of kindness. I have never been to another sporting event where the expert fans are quite as eager that you come to enjoy the game as much as they do.
It’s pure Canadiana, or at least a part of Canadiana that has remained quite pure, and unembarrassedly so. The “Brier,” by the way, was the name given by chief sponsor Macdonald Tobacco back in the 1920s. Yes, the national championship is named after a brand of pipe tobacco. After 50 years, tobacco gave way to beer, and it was the Labatt Brier from 1980-2000. Then someone had the bad idea of having it sponsored by Nokia, presumably on the grounds that they curl in Finland. Maybe they wired up the rocks.
For the past 15 years it has been the Tim Hortons Brier, which seems eminently fitting, even if going from tobacco and beer to coffee and doughnuts does seem to indicate a softening of the national character.
Then again, curlers are rather more physically fit than they were 30 years back. That is regrettable in part, distancing the curlers from their amateur colleagues who throw and sweep at rinks across the land, especially in the Prairies. But they are very good at what they do, and the Brier is a very good part of Canada. We need it this week, and are blessed to have it in Kingston.