Independent media needs you. Join the Tyee.


Tyee Books

Is Curling the New Hockey?

More buzz, fans and athletes, says author-athlete Russ Howard.

By Andy Prest 5 Apr 2007 |

Andy Prest is a Vancouver-based journalist whose parents are curling fanatics.

image atom
'Hurry Hard: The Russ Howard Story'
  • Hurry Hard: The Russ Howard Story
  • Russ Howard and Bob Weeks
  • Wiley Canada (2007)

Curling has gone big time in Canada. Many people still think it's a bizarre semi-sport with just a few fans. But this week at Rexall Place in Edmonton, the World Men's Curling Championships is setting record attendance levels. And last month, more than 1.2 million viewers tuned in to the CBC for the final of the Brier, the Canadian men's national championships.

Why? Well, the film Men With Brooms arguably brought one or two new fans. Then there's the fact that it's developed cool status because it's anti-cool -- kind of like drinking at legions instead of slick nightclubs. And it grabbed more fans when it started to appeal to serious athletes -- so much, that last year, curling was one of the surprise buzz sports at the Winter Olympics in Torino.

But although it was invented in Scotland and has grown to become a global curiosity, curling is still very much a Canadian game. Heck, the Brier's title sponsor is Tim Horton's.

And Russ Howard can explain why it has such a hold on the Canadian imagination. Howard holds Brier and World Championship wins through the 1980s and 1990s -- the most wins in history -- making him a curling celebrity. And last year, at the age of 50, Howard reached the pinnacle of the curling world when he joined Brad Gushue and his young, Newfoundland-based rink (the name for a team) in a surprising win at the Canadian Olympic trials -- likely the toughest curling competition in the world -- then went on to win gold medals at the Olympics.

Now, with the help of sports journalist Bob Weeks, Howard has published an autobiography called Hurry Hard: The Russ Howard Story. Howard spoke to The Tyee, and what follows are excerpts from our conversation.

On curling's hold on the Canadian imagination:

"It's way, way bigger than the average person, the non-curler, would think.

"The viewership, for instance, on TSN or even CBC, is as good or better than any NHL hockey game that's on there. It's only the NHL playoffs that can outdraw curling.

"There's 1.3 million curlers in Canada, which is a ton. And it's Canadiana. In the Canadian men's championship, for instance, or lady's championship, you've got Newfoundland playing B.C., or Northern Ontario playing Southern Ontario -- all these geographical areas where people come year after year after year to cheer on their province.

"And it's a very social sport. To me it's what Canada's all about. It's fair play, the whole sport is based on honesty, there's no cheating. If you've made a mistake, like golf you can call yourself on it. It's an incredibly social sport at whatever level you play."

On old school curlers:

"Curling's starting to get a different image because of Gushue and these young kids coming along. It's cool as a kid to curl now, which is nice. It wasn't before. Back when I started to curl, the image of a curler was a 60-year-old guy with a beer in hand and a cigar and an old sweater. It's not like that anymore."

On curling's beer-fuelled, party rep:

"I guess [curling's party image] is self inflicted. Years ago, in the old days, with the top curlers, it was more of a social thing. You flew to Vancouver for your event, and you made some fun out of it.

"But nowadays, the athletes are pretty finely tuned athletes, and they stay away from that stuff for the most part. It's more the fans that are involved with it.

"But there's not too many curlers that will turn down a beer, that's for sure. There's a custom in curling that I curl against you and I beat you, then after the game is over, you know, 'What are you drinking?' It's up to the winner to buy the loser a beer and you are usually nice enough to reciprocate. And all of a sudden we've had two beer."

On curling TV:

"The only coverage [when I started] was one or two games a year on CBC -- the final and maybe the semi-final of the Canadian men's championship only. So we only had, like, six hours of television the whole year. Now exposure is huge, and now there's TSN coverage 40 or 50 hours at the Canadian Men's, Canadian Lady's, the juniors...

"The one neat thing with curling TV is the microphones on the players. You can't do that with very many other sports. I think that's captured a lot of the fan base because you can sit in your living room and go, 'Oh, that's why they're thinking of doing that,' or, 'what are those idiots doing? Why don't they guard this?' It's really helped the non-curler understand the sport."

On forgetting about the mic:

"[Wearing a mic throughout a whole game] was weird at first because you tried to be so polite, you know, 'Nice shot Glenn -- we'll get em next time.' You know? Stuff like, 'Good going.' To the point that you'd forget, down the road, that you had mics on and all of a sudden you're swearing or you're saying something that you shouldn't say, like 'That guy was just lucky.' You just forget."

On 'hurry hard':

"I invented the phrase 'hurry hard' as far as I know, years ago when everybody yelled 'sweep.' The problem was, in the old days, we had these synthetic brooms and we were bashing them on the ice and it got very, very loud in some of these Quonset hut curling clubs. So if you were on the sheet beside me yelling sweep, my sweepers might think that was me, so it made sense to come up with a different set of signals.

"Why I picked 'hurry hard' I'll never know. But it's something you can yell a lot louder, like 'sweeeeep' is quiet but 'HAARRRD,' well, basically it caught on.

"I watched Korea the other day against my brother and they were yelling, 'HARD.' I should have maybe patented the word or something."

On getting booed at BC Place:

"We were in awe -- it was our first world championships. We'd beaten the legendary Bernie Sparkes, who was from B.C. You know, you cheer for your local hero -- so we were one step in the grave before we got here.

"And we played France in that first game, and we're going to beat France 2000 times out of 2000. They just weren't a good curling team. And we were whipping these guys. We were up 5-1 no problem at all half way through the game.

"Then all of a sudden, the ice melted because of the incandescent ceiling in B.C. Place, and we started missing shot after shot after shot. And to make a long story short, they ended up beating us on the last shot and it was devastating.

"And then the crowd started yelling 'boring' and yelling 'we want Bernie' -- which is commendable, really. But why not? They didn't know what was going on and they were looking down there watching us just play awful."

On winning the Olympic gold medal:

"The moment that sticks with me is the medal ceremony. They say, 'Gold medal champions -- Canada.' There were 9,000 people in this beautiful, quaint, kind of romantic setting. It was an old courtyard that was a billion years old and there's 9,000 mostly Canadian fans waving flags and my family in the front row. You see the flags going up and the national anthem -- that was unbelievable. Every time I hear the national anthem takes me back."