On Halloween of last year, Dale Kohlenberg, a 64-year-old lawyer with the Department of Justice, arrived in Iqaluit. He was there to fill a paternity leave for a few months.
He showed up at the office in the morning. In the afternoon, he went down to the Iqaluit Curling Club to sign up.
He asked to join a league and be put on what he called a “competitive” team. In Kohlenberg’s mind, that meant something decent with people who played regularly. They said they’d look around for him.
A couple of weeks later, Kohlenberg was at the club, measuring the circles on the rink “to see how accurate they were.”
A man approached and said, “You must be Dale.” Kohlenberg said he was.
The man asked if he’d still like to join a team. Kohlenberg said he would.
And then the man said, ‘How would you like to play in the Brier playdowns?”
Kohlenberg has that lawyer’s way of flattening everything down to facts. No dips or rises in tone when he tells a story. Just the information.
So he says this like it’s all pretty normal. That you’d show up to a ball diamond one day and be tossing a ball against the fence and someone might walk up and say, “Hey, would you like to try out for the Mets?”
Kohlenberg’s first reaction was to refuse. He’d half-dreamed of the Brier as a younger man, but figured he was too old for that now. The man insisted, plus he had a sweetener. He could guarantee a “33-per-cent chance” of qualification.
“How do you arrange for that?” Kohlenberg said.
“There’s only two other teams.”
Kohlenberg still had no idea who this person was, but said he’d think about it. After thinking about it, he cancelled a trip home.
On a Friday morning, he met his other teammates for the first time. In the afternoon, they had their one and only practice. In the evening, they started the qualifiers. And shortly thereafter, they won.
Walk into the right curling club in the right part of the country at exactly the right time. That’s how Dale Kohlenberg, federal employee from Saskatoon, got put on the bill for Canada’s sporting Coachella wearing the colours of Nunavut.
This is kind of the Brier in essence.
It exists in that weird and vanishing space between the cult of amateurism and the big time. It’s the Dale Kohlenbergs of the world up against the Brad Jacobses, John Eppings and Brad Gushues. Chancers and aristocrats occupying the same space at the top of the curling world for a week or so every year.
The Brier isn’t a competition, though it is that, too. It’s more correct to call it a festival. It is curling’s celebration of itself – of its old-timey values and classless society.
It’s where we remind ourselves that while we may be better at this sport than we are at anything, that doesn’t make us special. It just makes us Canadian.
Fair warning – I don’t curl. Don’t look for curling expertise here. You won’t find any.
I tried it once and it went poorly, though not at first. Powered by liquid PEDs manufactured by Labatt’s and a hero’s disdain for the pregame stretch, the initial showing was quite positive. Good extension. Decent slide.
Then I woke up the next morning. There are about a dozen muscles in the human groin. I’d pulled all of them.
So while I believe I can still throw a ball, I know I cannot throw a rock. Not without six months of yoga beforehand.
Then you get around really good curlers and you start to feel bad about yourself. The best are hyperfit types who look as if they live in an apartment above a Goodlife, but a lot of them are regular sorts with regular jobs and regular physiques.
The average age of the Prince Edward Island team at this year’s Brier is 57. Which makes you think, “What am I doing with my life? Because whatever else is going on, I don’t have a good excuse for why I am not also one of the world’s premier curlers.”
I understood this much about the Brier from watching it sporadically on TV over the years. It’s a competition between provinces and territories. It’s important. And people who are not from downtown Toronto take it very seriously. So tread carefully.
Before heading to this year’s event in Kingston, I went to one of my two curling friends and asked what I needed to know.
“First thing to do is find the Patch,” he said.
“The patch?” – no caps, because at this point I thought he was talking about something you iron onto a jacket.
He looked at me sadly. That little head tilt that says, “Do you have your passport on you? Because I should probably burn it.”
The Brier and the Patch are the two halves of this thing. The Brier is where you go to watch curling and the Patch is where you go afterward to drink about curling.
Like the Brier itself, the Patch moves around. This year, it’s directly across the street from the arena – a big, heated tent that isn’t much more than a couple of hundred folding tables, a stage and a long bar. The atmosphere is more “community centre wedding” than “Super Bowl glam’” It is Hoser Nirvana.
The Patch is where you go to mingle with the talent, which is like Tiger Woods showing up at a TGI Fridays in Augusta midway through the Masters.
On the first night, Glenn Howard – one of the Beatles of curling – is in there having a pop and accepting visitors after losing the wild card game.
Curling’s drinking culture isn’t as romanticized as it once was. Blame that (and just about everything else) on the Olympics. Once curling became a medal sport, it got respectable. But appearing in the Patch at least once is non-negotiable. Appearing in it many, many times makes you a “Patch hero” or a “Patch star.”
“Let’s put it this way – fans. In the Patch, most of them have had a few. And they get a little bit more risqué,” said Ontario’s John Morris.
Morris is the only man in curling with two Olympic golds. This puts him at the very top of the mountain. But he lists curling’s hierarchy like this – Brier, Olympics, Olympic qualifiers.
“The Brier’s different, different than any event I’ve ever played in,” Morris said. “It’s just got that energy.”
That’s my opening. Little lean in – describe this energy.
“I have definitely signed some interesting things in the Patch.”
“I won’t get into too many details.”
“Okay, here’s a good one.”
“I was asked to sign a woman’s …” – Morris’s voice dropped to the point where I could just barely hear him – “… breasts. I said to myself, ‘I’m a pretty special guy.’ Then she went to uncover her, um …” – back to whispering – “… breasts, there was already three or four signatures. I felt a lot less special.”
Morris leaned back, had a quick think and said, “I was younger then. A lot younger.”
“The great thing about the Patch is that we can chat with people and make them feel good about themselves,” said B.C.’s Rick Sawatsky, who’s competing in his ninth Brier. “Isn’t that what matters?”
And drink, right? Tell me about the drinking.
Curlers love to tell drinking stories, but they love it less when you’re holding a notepad while they do it. Every one of them gets this look – the “how far do I push this?” look; the “who do I put under the media bus on this one” look. There are a lot of long pauses.
Sawatsky tells a lovely story about the time his parents got in the Patch, his mother got on stage and he got the hell out of there before someone thought to get him up there next.
You suspect this is one of his G-rated tales for rubes. I sag a bit. Curlers, unlike all other top athletes, feel bad when you do that and want to make it better.
“There are teams where they’ll start 0-3 at a Brier and the skip will call an audible. Like, okay, we gotta get in one.”
Get in one?
“Some guys will say they gotta get in one. Go out and change things up. Let it out.”
Is this code for “drink 17 beers"?
“Right,” said Sawatsky, pleased that I have said it, meaning he has not.
Does that work?
“Almost all the time.”
A Canadian curling crowd is not quite like any other sports crowd.
It is patient, because curling goes on forever. It is engaged, because when you are doing the equivalent of launching a dart toward a target a football field away, random hooting is distracting. It is cruel, because it’s quiet enough to hear the reaction when you’ve screwed up.
There are four games going on at once. A Canadian curling crowd knows enough to scan the other three rinks for hazardous moments – a competitor in mid-shooting motion – before applauding something happening on the fourth. This is real audience participation.
But when it goes wrong, it goes really wrong.
Near the end of one early match, Quebec’s Alek Bedard badly muffs a shot. In golfing terms, this would be shanking the ball onto the patio of the clubhouse restaurant and killing a waiter.
All 5,000 or so people in the Leon’s Centre groan. How they all happened to be watching this particular shot at once is a wonder.
Then they show a replay. More than a few laugh. It is a far more cutting sound than the worst, most co-ordinated jeer you might hear at a big-league arena.
Bedard is just a kid – a 23-year-old university student from the small town of Lacolle. He hangs his head in literal shame and stays that way for a while. His teammates know enough to stay away from him.
But after the loss, Bedard has gathered himself enough to say, “Not so long ago, I was taking autographs from these guys. Now I play them. There are no words.”
That’s something you don’t see every day. That’s the Brier.
Rick Lang – another curling legend who’s here coaching the Northern Ontario team – comes out to talk about an unusual experience. He’s just been in a plane crash.
The plane wasn’t in the air at the time, but one assumes all plane crashes are unpleasant. The prop he was on spun off an icy runway and hit a snow bank. That shattered the propellers, which came through the fuselage like buckshot. A shard pierced Lang’s hand, which at the time was covering his head.
It’s been a few days since, but you can tell Lang’s still in that manic state you can enter after a near-death experience. He warns that he may cry and that if he does, he’d like the opportunity to turn away and start again.
When the accident happened, Lang was on his way home to see his first grandchildren, twins born to his daughter. He’s talking about those babies when he spots his son standing off to the side.
“My son Adam is here,” Lang announced, apropos of nothing. “He’s hopeless. It’s never going to happen for him.”
Lang is laughing, near tears and a little bit of a mess. Adam smiles and turns away as everyone turns to him, like it’s a lot to see his father feeling so much, so strongly, so publicly.
That’s the Brier, too.
It’s also the Brier when Nunavut skip Jake Higgs tries to explain his approach.
Nunavut will end their run having not taken a single game. Higgs doesn’t seem bothered. His goal was making the pilgrimage to curling mecca, not winning it.
Why is that?
“Because it’s the Brier,” Higgs said, like it’s the answer to an ancient riddle.
And where do you stand on this whole “get one in" theory?
Every curler feels the need to give you the responsibility speech before they give you the goods.
Higgs: “You never want to do that to a point where it’s going to affect your play.”
Also Higgs: “We’re here to have a good time.”
So you’ll wait until you’re in a hole?
“No, no,” Higgs said. “We know we’re in tough so we got in [the Patch] right away. We’re not waiting until we’re 0-3. We’re going for it right away.”
Describe going for it.
“We were calm last night,” Higgs said. “In bed by maybe 1.”
Higgs is saying this after completing his 9 a.m. match.
On the other side of the equation are the professionalized rinks. By ranking, six of the top-10 men’s teams in the world are Canadian. All of them are in Kingston.
These guys carry themselves differently. They’re not nearly as boring or scripted as hockey players, but they have the thousand-yard stare and the swagger down. You get a lot more “one rock at a time” in their patter.
For all its folksiness, the Brier is now essentially unfair. In the Disney version of story, every once in a while, Yukon would take down the black hats from Alberta. Except that never happens. The round-robin portion of the tournament is a steady procession of pros flogging amateurs for a week.
“Sure, there’s a divide,” said Ontario’s Brent Laing. “That big upset that used to be a possibility? There is no possibility now.”
Laing played in the last Olympics. He’s not here to get one in.
“It’s a common debate in curling – the haves versus the have nots. That debate drives me crazy,” Laing said. “Because I don’t know if people thought I was born with sponsors or if I went out and earned them. Because I didn’t have them until we started winning. It was weird.”
The delivery is deadpan and comedic, but the tone is salty. You get the impression that, out of politeness, Laing doesn’t get asked about this very often and is enjoying the chance to vent.
At some point – and you feel it’s near – the pros will completely take over the Brier. That’s the point at which the Patch becomes a promotional vehicle rather than a Press Club – the place everyone ends up at the end of the night telling their war stories.
“Some people in the stands probably don’t want to see [the Brier] change,” Laing said. “But as a player, I love seeing the best against the best.”
Speaking of change, there is also the undeniable monochromatism of this event. Curling may appeal to many sorts of Canadians – the ads they rather hopefully broadcast in-house have a distinct mid-1990s Benetton feel – but there’s only one sort of person in the stands.
“We don’t need a time capsule from the 1950s,” said Manitoba’s Colin Hodgson. “We don’t need a Caucasian-dominated sport.”
Hodgson is a representative of what you might call second-wave curling. He’s got the tattoos, the semi-mohawk and skulls on his gear.
This wouldn’t meet the bar for edgy in downtown anywhere, but it makes him curling’s Iggy Pop. Baby steps, people.
“We need Canadians from all different areas to feel like they belong in our sport,” Hodgson said. “If we don’t represent that at our biggest event, then I think that’s a failure on our part. I don’t want to be on that side of history.”
That’s as may be as well as a lovely idea, but it’s not the reality. At least, not yet.
So in order to break down stereotypes and nurture a new sense of adventure, we decide to go to dinner at the Keg. The Keg – that’s my Canada.
When you get around curlers and curling aficionados, you want to be like them. Which means getting one in. I’ll spare you the ugly details, but it went a lot later than 1. Brier madness had properly taken hold in Kingston. All that conviviality meant quick service and heavy pours – a wonderful/terrible combo.
The next morning, press row looked like an all-seater ICU. There was a lot of Powerade and whimpering.
When one game extended beyond the point at which it ought to have been conceded, a ripple of dissent broke out.
“On the one hand, these guys need the practice,” said one old hand. “On the other, they’re not thinking of how hungover the media bench is.”
Once it did end, we threw ourselves into the fray (i.e., went to the backstage area and wobbled in place for a while as people talked).
To a man, the curlers were in fine spirits. They had either skipped the festivities or are immune to them. They’re better than us in many ways.
I backed up against a Tim Hortons refilling station set up outside the dressing rooms and seriously considered lying down on it.
Brendan Bottcher, the Alberta skip and eighth-ranked curler in the world, wandered over in his civvies. There were a few boxes on the table. Since these were communal baked goods, they had been pretty well picked over.
Bottcher lifted a few lids and looked in suspiciously. He didn’t find whatever it was he was looking for. A volunteer ran over and offered to fetch him whatever he liked.
“Nope,” Bottcher said, patting his washboard stomach. “I don’t need it.”
A few minutes later, Nunavut’s Dale Kohlenberg comes by and snarfs a muffin.
“I’ll go with the healthy pickings …” he said to no one in particular. He sees me looking at him and arches an eyebrow. “… because I’m an athlete.”