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More than seven million Canadians tuned in to the Scotties Tournament of Hearts, won by Manitoba skip Jennifer Jones’s rink, last week in Moose Jaw, Sask. (TODD KOROL/REUTERS)
More than seven million Canadians tuned in to the Scotties Tournament of Hearts, won by Manitoba skip Jennifer Jones’s rink, last week in Moose Jaw, Sask. (TODD KOROL/REUTERS)

It's time we made curling our third official national sport Add to ...

Nelson Riis is open to the idea.

Twenty-one years ago, Mr. Riis – then the NDP Member of Parliament for Kamloops – managed the rare feat of having a Private Member’s bill passed in the House of Commons. C-212, the National Sports of Canada Act, recognized hockey and lacrosse as the country’s two national pastimes.

The time has come, perhaps, to add curling.

Back in 1994, Mr. Riis’s intention was to name only hockey, by far the most popular sport, but a determined lacrosse lobby fiercely argued that the country’s original game must not be ignored.

“During debate, that almost derailed the legislation,” remembers Mr. Riis, who in 2000 left federal politics for private business in Ottawa. “So we compromised and made hockey our national winter sport and lacrosse our national summer sport. I suppose we could continue that process and name curling our spring sport.”

It may not yet be spring but there is no denying that curling holds major status in Canada. The Tim Horton’s Brier, curling’s biggest annual event, runs all this coming week in Calgary, the Scotiabank Saddledome having been altered from the blue lines and smooth ice of NHL hockey to the hog lines and pebbled ice of curling.

Last week more than seven million Canadians tuned in to the Scotties Tournament of Hearts being held in Moose Jaw, Sask. The final, won by Manitoba’s Jennifer Jones rink, attracted more than a million viewers – even though it was up against the Academy Awards.

“For some,” says Mr. Riis, who used to curl in Kamloops with his wife, Penny, “curling can be like watching paint dry. For others, it can be endlessly fascinating.”

No sport has changed its image as dramatically as curling has in recent years. Ms. Jones said last year in Sochi, where her team won Olympic gold, that curling was now considered a “cool” sport for young athletes, and there is evidence to back up such a claim. Once derided as “The Boring Game” – a play on curling calling itself “The Roaring Game” – and considered an “activity” for older, overweight smokers more interested in the post-game drinks than pre-game stretches, today’s competitive curlers are fitness freaks and more often in their 20s than their 40s and 50s.

It has come a long, long way since 1988, when curling was a demonstration sport at the Calgary Winter Games and two of the country’s curlers were ordered to lose weight and shape up following a fitness test that found neither could do a sit-up. Last year’s Olympic men’s gold medal winners, the tight-shirt Brad Jacobs rink from Sault Ste. Marie, were called “gym rats” and “The Buff Boys” in Sochi.

But the change is much more than just fitness. Curling fashion took a sharp turn when the Norwegian men’s team showed up at the Vancouver Olympics wearing pants that looked like Technicolor test patterns. Then the Russian women’s team posed in lingerie with their curling brooms and stones in the lead-up to Sochi.

“First of all, we are professional sportsmen,” Russian skip Anna Sidorova told The Globe and Mail after one match. “And then we are ‘pretty girls’ – or however you wish to put it.”

Now this new flamboyance is everywhere. At the Hogline Curlers Proshop in Ottawa, owner Joe Pavia is stocking up on multi-coloured micro-briefs – underwear with a curling house target and a discreet “Do Not Cross” hog line – for the approaching 10th anniversary “Over The Rainbow Bonspiel.”

Sochi also saw a dramatic change in fan decorum. When the Russian women played, the Ice Cube Curling Center turned into curling’s equivalent of the 16th hole at golf’s Phoenix Open, where bleachers line the fairway and fans scream in the hope of distracting golfers used to library silence.

From a reporter’s point of view, curlers are profoundly more interesting than today’s hockey stars. They not only try to answer your questions, but they do so without hiding behind clichés. There is no mention of “playing the right way,” “at the end of the day” or “it is what it is.” In curling, “going forward” doesn’t require saying because it’s the only way to go.

They are also much easier for fans to relate to, as unlike today’s fabulously rich young men who play professional hockey, curlers are considered amateurs who might be lucky to cover expenses through bonspiels. “Curlers need jobs,” says Mr. Jacobs, who makes his living in banking.

Curlers can also be quite witty. Back in Nagano in 1998, when curling was readmitted to the Olympics after a 74-year absence, Canada’s Paul Savage dropped his pants to prove that he had an Olympics tattoo. Joan McCusker, a member of the gold-medal Canadian women’s curling team, noted that the International Olympic Committee might consider this an illegal reproduction of the rings and “sue your ass off.”

Canadian women – the Sandra Schmirler rink from Saskatchewan – won Olympic gold that first year, and Ms. Jones’s rink captured gold last year. Canadian men have won three Olympic gold medals in a row.

Unlike hockey, these aren’t all-star teams assembled for the once-every-four-years event, but are provincial and regional rinks that often stay together for years and rise up through such events as the Tournament of Hearts and the Brier to win the right to represent their country in the Olympics and annual World Championships.

Which, of course, brings us to another point. Sadly, no Canadian hockey team has won the country’s top trophy, the Stanley Cup, since 1993. That’s not likely to change, given the manner in which hockey has changed under salary caps and the increasing control the very best players have over where they will play and where their families will live.

There is simply no doubt that a Canadian team will win the Brier. And a good chance that a Canadian team will take the men’s world championship, scheduled for Halifax March 28 to April 5. Canada has taken 34 of the championships, with Sweden a distant second with six and Scotland third with five.

As for the women, their world championship is in Sapporo, Japan, March 14-22. Canadian women have 15 victories, with Sweden second with eight followed by Switzerland with four.

Given such success, and given that there is no Nelson Riis in the House of Commons to introduce a new bill, perhaps another type of bill could do the job.

The Bank of Canada inexplicably dumped hockey from the back of the five-dollar bill and replaced it with something from outer space. Next makeover, which cannot come fast enough, they should consider curling – Canada’s third national sport.

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